The other day, I was listening to Radiolab on NPR and it suddenly hit me… I have prosopagnosia!
Not a severe case, but a fairly bad case, enough to be severely embarrassing when it hits me! 🙁
Prosopagnosia also called face blindness, is the inability to recognise faces even when one might be familiar with the person. It is a cognitive disorder of face perception where the ability to recognize faces is impaired, while other aspects of visual processing (e.g., object discrimination) and intellectual functioning (e.g., decision making) remain intact, says Wikipedia.
Initially, the term was applied to conditions following acute brain damage. However, recent research has proved that a congenital or developmental form of the condition also exists where people are born with it or acquire it early in life, and what is more, it affects a large number of the population.
A German study conducted in 2006 and reported in the American Journal of Medical Genetics found that about 2% of the population suffered from prosopagnosia. Another survey conducted by Dr. Ken Nakayama of the Harvard University indicates that as much as 10% of the general population might be suffering from prosopagnosia to various degrees.
In its severest form, prosopagnosiacs fail to recognise even their close friends and family. Especially when they meet people away from the familiar places where they routinely interact. Even in its milder forms, prosopagnosia can be the cause of terrible embarrassment and social discomfort. That is exactly what my experience was.
Take the time when I was having lunch with a bunch of people from work. And this guy at the next table turns around, ‘Hi Ria, how are you?’ He gets up and comes over and starts talking. It is all I can do to hold up my side of the conversation, without giving away the fact that I have no clue who he is! Meanwhile, I’m busily going through mental lists searching for his identity. Obviously, he is a contact from work, possibly from a past workplace. So my questions go in that direction… ‘So how is work?’ ‘Oh you know how it is… same old, same old’. No win there. ‘And how is everyone at work?’ ‘Hey, I changed jobs recently, did you know?’ And he is busy getting his wallet out and extracting a card for me. My sigh of relief was not audible, I hope! I took the card, looked at it and all I wanted to do was kick myself! How could I forget this guy? We occupied neighbouring cubes at my previous job, been a party to private jokes, mostly at the expense of cow-orkers – no that is not a typo – and shared innumerable lunches. How could I? I’m so glad that the rest of the conversation was a genuine pleasure!
Or think about this situation. I’m walking along in the city, with my friend Ashley. On a Friday, after work, headed to our favourite watering hole. We are stopped at a light waiting to cross. And this guy stops by us and starts talking to me. ‘Hey, hey, how are you? Long time, no see’. And I’m smiling and talking and searching in my mind for his name. And I know, I should be introducing Ashley right away. She is looking at me like ‘what is wrong with you?’ He is looking at her… and at me. And all I can say is, ‘sorry, gotta rush. Talk to you later’. And I cross the road, almost running. Fortunately, Ashley knows me well, and has no problem believing the fact that I couldn’t introduce her just because I didn’t know the guy’s name! And to this day, that remains a mystery!
I hardly ever enjoy a movie with many white men actors for the simple reason that I’m pretty much unable to keep the characters and their names straight in my mind!
Though my experiences with prosopagnosia has been totally awkward when they occurred, they have not been that frequent to warrant any anxiety. Generally I have written them off as caused by a busy mind. But now, in the light of recent enlightenment, I’m forced to reconsider. And I have come to the conclusion: yes, I suffer from prosopagnosia!
If you want to test your ability to recognise faces, check out this page at Radiolab Blogland.
You can read more about prosopagnosia at
11 Apr 2014