health

What it's like to be someone with "face blindness", the inability to recognise faces.

Image: iStock.

Whether it’s an acquaintance or one of those “oh, that guy” movie stars, we’ve all experienced the sensation of struggling to place someone’s face.

For people with prosopagnosia, however, this happens with every single face they encounter. Also known as “face blindness”, this neurodevelopmental condition is characterised by the inability to recognise and discern between people’s faces.

It’s believed up to one in 50 people experience difficulty in recognising faces. Brad Pitt counts himself in this group, telling Esquire magazine a few years ago, “It’s a mystery to me. I can’t grasp a face… I am going to get it tested.”

A number of prosopagnosia sufferers have described the daily challenges of living with the condition on Reddit. One of them, ‘FacelessThrowaway‘, wasn’t diagnosed until he was halfway through college.

“It never actually occurred to me that people could recognise other people using solely their facial features. I didn’t know I lacked perception that others had,” he recalls.

Here are some of the fascinating things FacelessThrowaway revealed in his Ask Me Anything thread:

1. He can’t recognise or remember his own face.

“I have very distinguishable hair. That is my marker. There is one instance in memory when there were photos of a waterfight in which my hair was wet and slicked down, and I could not find myself in the photos. I cannot picture or describe my own face, save for descriptions other people have provided me with.”

2. He is hyper aware of how people dress.

“After a certain amount of time around friends or an SO, I will memorise the clothes they wear. Spend enough time with someone and they will cycle through all their clothes. I am very good at picking up on new clothing/shoes because of this… I get to be a fashionable friend due to my acute observation of wardrobes.”

Watch: Paula Joye demonstrates how to wear one scarf three ways. (Post continues after video.)

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3. TV shows and movies are almost impossible to follow.

“It definitely kept me out of any enjoyment of mainstream pop culture for a long time, which I suppose affected my taste in music, movies, et … I never could keep up with celebrities either, as I could not recognise the same actor from one film to the next as changing costume/voice/mannerisms made it impossible for me to tell they were the same person.”

4. He recognises family members by memorising their features

“I will ‘visualise’ certain things about people; my dad’s beard, my brother’s hair, my grandmother’s jewelry, my girlfriend’s posture and gait. I can’t picture faces, but there are identifying traits for most of my close family.”

“I can focus in on certain aspects of a person and memorise them over time. However, there is no one in particular who I could identify more easily from facial features alone. I can’t even picture my own mother.” (Post continues after gallery.)

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5. His definition of ‘attractiveness’ is rarely aesthetic.

“I judge attractiveness quite a bit by how people hold themselves. Their gait, their posture, how they sit, their body language during conversation; it affects my perception of people hugely, and its also my most reliable method of identification. You can find out a lot about someone from how they hold themselves, and it has a large bearing on what I find attractive.

“I do find things like dyed hair, piercings, or distinctive hairstyles and clothing attractive, but I’m not certain if it’s because those are actually my preferences or if they simply let me identify people more easily and therefore I tend to gravitate towards them … People tend to grow in attractiveness to me the more I know them; I am far less able to become very attracted to someone on first appearances alone.”

"I judge attractiveness quite a bit by how people hold themselves."

6. Body language is especially important.

"I can recognise people by body and read body language quite well after some learning time, which has been beneficial in relationships ... the walk is such a great one, especially from a distance. It does vary completely from person to person."

"As well my attention to voices can often give me cues that the person is deliberately trying to hide in their face; helps me know when someone is using a poker face."

7. He experiences social anxiety "all the time".

"The worst emotional effect is simply social anxiety, when I don't know if people I know are going to pass me on the street and I should acknowledge them or not knowing if I'll recognise my date."

Have you ever experienced this?

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