I’m going to let you in on a little secret that very few people know about, at least until now. For most of my adult life, in varying degrees of severity, I have been afflicted with a condition known as prosopagnosia, which means that I have trouble recognizing faces.
Many people I know, especially as they grow older, complain about their inability to remember names. Or even to remember people, period. (Even themselves, in some sad cases.) That’s not a problem for me. I remember people’s names, and often seemingly insignificant aspects of their life story. But that doesn’t do me a whole lot of good if I can’t actually recognize the person in the first place.
I didn’t give this too much thought when I was younger. I thought it was probably normal, common even, and by and large I have learned to live with it. But then one day I came across an article in the New Yorker by Dr. Oliver Sacks titled “Face Blindness.” In this article, Dr. Sacks talks about his own case of prosopagnosia, and says that among other things, he might not recognize his own wife except by context, such as seeing her in their home, or by an article of clothing or a piece of jewelry she’s be wearing that would be familiar to him.
In this short video, he says that in some instances, he doesn’t even recognize his own face:
While I can certainly appreciate that there is something wonderfully and tragically poetic about not being able to recognize even oneself, I cannot say that it has ever been that severe in my own situation.
But that’s not to say I am not afflicted with this condition. There is an online test that one can do, found at http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/. I did at and failed badly. (It’s an interesting test to take and if you think you might have this condition, I encourage you to take it and see for yourself. It’s also a good time-waster.)
In my case, the most common manifestation occurs when, after meeting a person a few times, even in a short period of time, I am capable of walking right by him or her a few days later with absolutely no recognition. This comes across as either arrogance or just plain bad manners, but believe me, it’s not a conscious decision that I make. I simply don’t always pick up on the face. In fact, there have been many cases when I’ve recognized someone by the shoes he or she is wearing, or a coat or purse. But not the face.
This can be particularly disastrous in terms of business and romance, which may in part explain why I am essentially unemployed and totally single. Meetings with people I have only seen once or twice are particularly problematic. In some cases, if I’m not sure of what the person looks like exactly I will study their photos on Facebook before a meeting, if I happen to have them as a friend. Otherwise, I have to hope that they will recognize me. To recognize someone out of context is virtually impossible for me, which in part explains my rigorous adherence to routines. And yet, at the same time, and who knows why, there are some faces that I never mistake and will never forget.
There’s no rhyme nor reason to it. There are no predictors or indicators. I am unable to recognize faces irrespective of gender, race, skin colour, age, etc. etc. Those who know me would surely think that hell would have to freeze over before I’d forget the face of a beautiful woman, but alas, it happens. The condition, in my case, is random and indiscriminate.
I’m working on a novel these days in which my main character suffers from this curious affliction. So far, it’s been an interesting field to stick my literary shovel into. As far as I know, in the realm of fiction, no one has ever done this before. There’s a certain satisfaction knowing that you may be the first to do so. They say “write what you know” and that’s just what I’m doing.
Meanwhile, in real life, I’m dealing with it. It’s not getting any worse, and over the years I have built up many strategies for coping, so by and large I get by. I do get caught out sometimes, and it’s embarrassing. But by and large, I have learned to cope.
So if I walk by you on the street without any acknowledgement, I apologize. As you can see, it’s really quite innocent . . . except for the rare occasions when it’s not.
I leave you with this great old video that has nothing to do with anything, but that features mullets and a trombone solo, so what more could you ask for?
Thanks for reading!