Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

On Prosopagnosia

Also called "face blindness."

I enjoy swing dancing. It's ridiculously fun, besides also being good exercise and a nice way to be social and meet new people. Most everyone ends up having trouble remembering people's names, since it's such a rapid-fire way to meet people. Dance with them for four minutes, usually in a darkened room while you're concentrating on connection and steps and all of that, then exchange names, and move on to the next person.

But for me, it sometimes goes beyond that. I may have had a long conversation with someone one night, but I won't recognize them the next day. I danced with someone for over a month, left town for a while, and upon coming back, couldn't remember if I had ever met them.

As an undergrad, I majored in both French and psychology. And in a psych lecture one day (Perception, I think), the professor started talking about prosopagnosia. It's when a person's ability to recognize faces is impaired. Thanks to something in the brain called the fusiform gyrus, human beings have a unique ability to recognize and distinguish between faces, much more easily than other similarly complex types of input. But prosopagnosiacs can't. Depending on the severity of their disorder, they may have to rely on other clues: voice, hairstyle, glasses, gait, even clothes. With varying degrees of success, of course -- people change their clothes every day.

And then I started doing a bit more research on the disorder. I recognize my family and friends just fine, yes. But if someone I know has shaved off their hair, I do a double-take. I have trouble distinguishing people in movies or plays if they're the same race and build. And if I run into someone out of context (a classmate out shopping, a swing dancer in the library, the coffeehouse barista out to dinner), I may not know who they are.

Unfortunately, this lack of mental ability can be interpreted as rude. If the other person doesn't remember my name, I have an easy out -- we can both laugh and commiserate over how difficult it is to remember the names of every single person we meet. Or if we've only met once, or even twice, it's easy to explain away. But. Otherwise? Ugh.

And networking? Fuggedaboutit. Oh yes, it's possible, of course. But if I have to remember what someone looked like, I sometimes have to use my secret weapon: Google Images. Maybe it's cheating. Maybe it's the only tool I have. Thank goodness for the Internet, sometimes.

I'm lucky, though. A friend of mine, a psychologist in France, has a more severe case of prosopagnosia. She has to explain to her patients that she won't be able to ever recognize them by face alone. Saying "Oh, but of course you'll remember me! How could you not?" doesn't actually help. You're not a special case. Your face is just like any other face, unrecognizable. And she's lost patients because of it.

Over the years, I've gotten used to the split-second terror that comes when someone walks up to me with a smile on their face, saying "Hi, Allison!" and I have no idea who they are. If there's nothing distinctive about them, I'm lost. If it's not the smooth, dark-skinned woman with wonderfully wavy hair who always drapes scarves over her shoulders...or the 6'5"-tall swing dancer with rectangular glasses and a matching smile...or the pale woman with very straight, naturally bleach-blond hair and cutely scrunched up features...or the guy with the light brown hair in a ponytail all the way down his back...... If I don't have any other cues, I've gotten used to the hot pink that creeps up my face to my ears, and my heart pounding THUMPTHUMPTHUMP against my bones that drowns out the question I'm forced to ask, "I'm so sorry, but I've completed blanked on your name...where was it that we met?"

How embarrassing. But only because prosopagnosia, no matter how slight, has not entered the collective consciousness. It's still not socially acceptable. The automatic assumption is that of course there's not any valid excuse for forgetting someone's name, someone's face. You're forgetting their very identity. To you, they're not a person. How rude.

How rude for that assumption to be made of millions of people with some form of the disorder. Really. An estimated 2.5% of the population. That's millions.

So I rely on my coping mechanisms: Google Images, cell phone pictures, conversational cues, re-introductions, profuse apologies proffered. And, subconsciously, a solitary career that minimizes the amount of time I have to spend with other people. Seriously -- there are only two girls who work afternoons at the coffeeshop I began frequenting, and it was two weeks before I could tell them apart. Not much of an incentive to go work as a doorman. -woman. -person. -holder. I'd be the worst receptionist ever.

Thank goodness for the books. I can at least recognize them by their covers.

For more information, start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosopagnosia