Geeks Vs Loneliness: face-blindness

A few words about prosopagnosia - better known as face-blindness...

Welcome to Geeks Vs Loneliness, our spot on the site where we chat about things that may be affecting you, or people you know. This week, we’re handing over to  Shawm Kreitzman, who wants to talk about something we’re betting many of you – us included – hadn’t heard of before…

A few years ago, I stumbled across the trailer for Anomalisa on YouTube.

I had never heard of the film, but I watched the trailer with mild interest and thought it looked like a curious (if slightly melancholy) piece of stop-motion animation, nicely executed, but ultimately unremarkable. I let my mouse wander on to something else, and didn’t give it another thought.

Until my girlfriend happened to see it, that is.

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“That was incredibly creepy,” she said to me, after seeing the clip.

Creepy? I had thought the mood was a little on the glum side, the general tone rather drab. But creepy?

“All the faces are exactly the same,” she told me.

Apparently that’s the whole point of the film. I hadn’t actually noticed it.

From where I sit, you have a superpower. Congratulations. You may not have X-Ray vision, or Adamantium claws that spring out of your knuckles (and be honest, how useful would that really be at the office) but there is something that you do every day; something that is completely beyond my abilities. You can distinguish one face from another.

I happen to suffer from face-blindness (prosopagnosia, to its friends) which means I find it very, very difficult to tell faces apart.

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Think for a moment about how many different faces you have seen in your life. Apart from your family and friends, there are the faces of your neighbours; there are the thousands of commuters you have passed on your way to work, and the total strangers you see in the supermarket. There were the faces of the other kids at your school, back in the day. And that’s before we even start talking about the faces you see in the Media: politicians, actors, celebrities, lingerie models, football hooligans etc.

Somehow, those millions of faces all look different to you. I have absolutely no idea how you do it.

Never mind the faces in Anomalisa; all faces look alike to me. Jason Statham and Clark Gregg look alike to me, apart from the hair (don’t tell the staff at Den Of Geek I said that). Show me a photo of the Beatles and I see four identical white kids with silly haircuts. With a gun to my head I couldn’t tell you which one is which.

I’m not blind; my vision is perfectly fine. I can read the bottom line of the eye-chart forwards and backwards without breaking a sweat. But if I should happen to bump in to my optician at the grocery store an hour later, I will have absolutely no idea who she is.

Most people, it seems, are hard-wired to distinguish the tiniest variations in facial features and perceive those variations as a unique individual – without even realising they are doing it. I never got those wires. When I look at a human face, I see the eyes, nose and mouth right where they’re supposed to be. I can see that some people have brown eyes, some people have blue eyes and such like.

But to take all those features and use them to construct a unique person? That is completely beyond my ability.

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Like many people with prosopagnosia, I spent most of my life with absolutely no idea I had it. Indeed, it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I even knew it could be a “thing”. Before that, I just assumed I simply wasn’t paying enough attention. After all, everyone else seemed to recognise each other with ease. Why couldn’t I do that?

There were plenty of socially awkward moments. I hated parties, or any situation where I would be expected to meet a large number of new people in a short time (I still do). When I worked in a shop, I was hopeless at recognising regular customers when they walked in (until they spoke to me, at which point I would recognise them at once. I’m exceptionally good with voices.). If someone changed their look significantly (shaved their beard, lost a lot of weight, dyed their hair purple etc) they instantly became a stranger to me. And I was useless at spotting familiar actors in films.

Before I read about prosopagnosia, it had never occurred to me that others might be seeing faces differently. When I recognise people (and I do recognise people all the time) it’s usually by their hair; their voice; their body language. I just assumed that everyone else did the same thing, only much better.

The biggest problem with face-blindness is that most people have never heard of it. Tell someone you’re colour-blind and they will understand immediately. Tell them you’re dyslexic and they will nod, sympathetically. But prosopagnosia? Is that contagious? Do you take pills for it? (No, you don’t, by the way. There’s no treatment per se.) And if you fail to recognise someone you’re supposed know, they can become very offended very quickly. Even after I explain it (which I rarely bother to do) people are often sceptical.

“So you really can’t see my face?” they ask.

Of course I can see your face; it’s right where you think it is. I just can’t see what makes your face different from the countless other faces I have seen in my lifetime. (And my prosopagnosia is relatively mild. Some people are unable to recognise their own family, or even themselves in mirrors and photographs.)

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Please don’t be offended. It’s nothing personal, but that’s exactly the problem. For most people, The Face is the most personal thing there is (there’s a reason they don’t call it ‘Voicebook’).

The irony is that I’m not troubled by any of this, although that wasn’t always the case.

Before I knew what it was, I struggled with it quite a bit. I thought I must be doing something wrong; I thought I simply wasn’t being observant enough. This is a story I have heard from many others with the same condition. Many of us are terrified of meeting people, of interacting with anyone, for fear of embarrassing ourselves or inadvertently causing offence. We simply don’t realise that we truly see the world differently.

When you’re different, you tend to experience things through a filter. If something happens and you react one way while everyone else reacts another way, your first response is generally to wonder why. If I wasn’t reacting to things the way normal people do, then obviously we’re seeing things differently. When I eventually realised I was face-blind, it didn’t scare me or disturb me; it made perfect sense. I was literally seeing things differently.

“Normal” is my least-favourite word in the English language. Remember Malcolm McDowell’s line from Star Trek: Generations? “Normal is what everyone else is, and you are not.”Best Line Ever.

In exploring my own prosopagnosia, I have realised that the way we perceive the world around us is extremely subjective and personal. When I compare notes with people who have dyslexia for example, I hear them talking about written words the way I talk about faces.

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When they see printed text on a shop window or a street sign, they don’t see the text, they see the shapes. Once they recognise those shapes as text, they can consciously make a decision to attempt to read it. For my part, I can’t imagine seeing text and not reading it. Where they see shapes, I see language.

When it comes to faces, I see shapes, while you see people.

We can never truly know what another person sees when they look at the world, but I feel sure that it’s nothing the rest of us would recognise. People with synesthesia, for example, can ‘hear’ colours, and, growing up, probably assumed that the rest of us do as well.

The only thing we have in common is the fact that we have almost nothing in common. That’s why everyone reacts differently, and it’s one of the reasons why so many people hate each other so much. I really wish more of us would realise that; it would solve so many problems in this world.

For my part, I rather like the fact that I’m seeing things the way you don’t (or vice versa). It constantly reminds me that everyone sees something different when they look at the same things. That’s what gives the world its diversity.

Sadly, some people are frightened by diversity. I will never understand that. It’s as plain to me as the face on your nose.

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If you think you might have prosopagnosia, my best advice is to talk about it with your family and close friends. Compare notes. Let them know what you’re dealing with. It really helps.

There are various facial recognition tests that are freely available online. I recommend these two: and

There are also many chat rooms, forums and Facebook groups devoted to prosopagnosia, including this Yahoo group:

And finally, here is the NHS information page about prosopagnosia:

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