Living with (partial) face blindness

Imagine a small dinner party where six strangers share with you the warmth of conversation and mutually appreciated humor. The pleasure of the evening lasts for hours after dinner, spreading from the table to the living room comfortably. You leave, feeling fortunate to have started several important new friendships. 

Now imagine being somewhere several days later with a new group of friendly strangers. As the conversations open to include you, some people appear to know you well. You fill with dread. Do you know them? Perhaps the same six people from the dinner party, those budding friendships, are here with you. Perhaps other friends long established. You actually do remember a couple of them, and a few faces do look vaguely familiar somehow, but most, as far as you know, you have never seen before. The strange faces remain strange. No matter how hard you try to imprint a new acquaintance’s features on your brain, it simply does not work.

It seems so rude, the stumbling of a selfish jerk unworthy of friendship, to admit complete ignorance of the identity of someone who clearly knows who you are. You might really like this person, but for some reason their face just slides off your brain like butter on a hot pan. You try to fake your way through the conversation without revealing you don’t actually know who’s talking to you, muddling on and on, ashamed, but with a hopefully friendly expression on your face and a hand extended in ready welcome, hoping for a clue that will make a connection. 

This scenario might sound bizarre to you if you recognize faces, but there are people like me with a condition called prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness,’ who live that scenario, or worse, every day. I have a relatively mild case, unlike some people who cannot even recognize their own face in a mirror. I usually recognize people I see frequently without much trouble, and though I also have trouble recognizing vehicles, I am often able to describe a person or a vehicle accurately. Unfortunately, I will still not recognize them when I see them.

It is not unusual for someone to say hello to me in a coffee shop, and I will have no idea who I am talking to. I try to be very friendly when someone approaches me, since I don’t know for sure if this is our first meeting or our hundredth. Even a good friend, a person I interact with regularly, can wear the face of a stranger. No matter how hard I try to stay relaxed, a terror always washes through me when a random person walks toward me with a gigantic grin plastered on their face, saying, “so good to see you again!” I do want to see you too, but I just don’t know who you are!

Like most people with prosopagnosia, I compensate for not being able to recognize faces by relying on other cues—hair color and style, style of dressing, or context of acquaintanceship (like recognizing a front desk person by the fact that she’s at the front desk). I’m in big trouble in crowds, and I get very stressed when meeting people in a different place from where I usually see them, or run into someone randomly out of context. I rarely introduce myself to strangers, or look at approaching strangers in the eye because they may be someone I should recognize, but don’t.

Being with another person in public, or just stopping to talk with somebody in public, is a cause for great fear. I constantly am on the lookout for someone coming my way. I’m a polite person, I want to introduce people, and am all-to-often embarrassed by my own rudeness in not introducing people I’m with. If I am somewhere and someone calls my name, I might pretend I don’t hear them as I duck around a corner and quickly hide. It is impossible to face the fact that it will probably be someone I know very well but do not recognize. It has even happened with family members that were somewhere I didn’t expect.

I know there are legions of people who think I’m a rude person because of how this condition has guided my behavior in the past.  

It wasn’t until I read a book by Oliver Sacks that I found out what was going on. I was relieved to discover that there was a medical reason, not disinterest in other people, or failure to pay attention, that caused me not to recognize faces. A significant part of my “shyness,” my “reclusiveness,” my “social ineptitude,” my “eccentricity,” is a consequence and a misinterpretation of my difficulty recognizing faces. Eureka! Despite that revelation, I am like author Heather Sellers, who says of her own face blindness, “I recognize people all the time, except when I don’t, and I never know which is which. … It’s very confusing.”

There are ways you can help. If we bump into each other somewhere and you notice panic in my eyes as I trip over vague words of greeting, please be kind. It’s not your face, it’s my brain. Just say, Hi! It’s me, _____________.  If we are in public together, please be really outgoing if someone approaches and introduce yourself before I have a chance to appear rude by not introducing them to you. Believe me, I wish I would have thought of that one years ago! Together we can find lots of good reasons for me not to want to be alone all the time, and I can start looking forward to ‘seeing’ you. (smile).