It’s called prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder that leaves its sufferers unable to recognize individual faces. Also known as face blindness, or facial agnosia, prosopagnosia effects thousands of people throughout the world to varying degrees. And just how much does face blindness complicate the lives of its sufferers? The answer is: wildly.
When its portrayed in a thriller movie starring that lady from the Resident Evil films, it’s easy to think that face blindness is the concoction of a half-bored Hollywood writer. That’s entirely untrue. This incredibly debilitating condition is nothing if not deadly serious. Those unfortunate people who are afflicted with prosopagnosia must endure an uncertain and often unfriendly outside world every day of their lives.
Faceblindness symptoms may be few, but their resulting handicaps are immeasurable. Similar to enduring blindness or hearing loss, face blindness can be a hugely isolating condition that has a profound impact on those living with it. Here are some of the endless ways that face blindness can affect a life, as well as some stories from people who live their lives unable to rely on their own eyes.
At present, there are two recognized types of prosopagnosia: One is an exceptionally rare form of the disease, which can be acquired in the wake of severe trauma. The other type is a developmental deficiency that scientists believe is passed through families.
So, what exactly goes wrong?
In order for the brain to recognize a face, an extremely intricate series of neurons in the occipital and temporal lobes must work in conjunction. Damage to any part of the neural network that decodes facial features can cause face blindness to develop.
One of the common misconceptions about people with face blindness is that they can’t see faces, or that the face in question is just a big blur like a domestic abuser arrested on COPS. According to one Reddit user who claims to have the disorder, that’s not true.
People with face blindness see faces the same way everyone else does, it’s just that their brains have a hard time translating those images into short- or long-term memories. Think of it like looking at a really complicated math problem: when looking over the numbers on the page, it might be easy to recognize each number and symbol, but as soon as the book is closed the specific order and purpose of the math problem becomes harder to remember.
In cases of acquired face blindness, there have been several studies to determine the root cause of the issue. Unfortunately, because of the complex nature of the cognitive system governing facial recognition, a lot of different ailments can result in someone being unable to recognize faces, even those belonging to family members.
Someone suffering from trauma to the right occipital lobe may not be able to process facial features in any form. Someone who has a lesion on their temporal lobe, on the other hand, might not be able to remember a face they’ve just seen. The initial cause is different, but the functional result is the same.
A person with face blindness may be able to rely on a mirror to spot themselves, but beyond that, people with face blindness likely wouldn't be able to pick themselves out of a crowd.
One sufferer describes how: “When I look in the mirror or take a selfie, I see myself and my face because that's what I’m expecting. I use the same methods of recognizing myself as I do other people, e.g hair style, clothes and so on. If I [get] a hair cut and wasn’t [allowed] to see what its like [and] someone took a picture and showed it to me I would be unable to recognize myself straight away… It's also difficult for me to visualize what my own face looks like, if someone were to cut off my hair in the middle of the night I wouldn't recognize myself the next morning.”