Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Face Blindness

I have struggled my entire adult life with a peculiar condition called prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness”. I have great difficulty recognizing many faces that should be familiar to me. It’s not that I’m incapable of telling one person from another, but it takes me much longer than the average person to see a face and identify whether or not I know the person.

I only learned the name for this condition within the last year when I read an article about it in the New York Times. I was extremely excited to learn that my challenge recognizing faces had a name, that many other people suffer with it, and that research is being conducted to learn more about it.

Face blindness has caused a whole lot of difficulty in my life. I constantly struggle with ways to figure out if I know someone or not. Many times I’ve had conversations with people, sometimes at great depth and length, and then totally not recognize the person even a few minutes later, much less a day or week later. I’m sure many people have experienced hurt or angry feelings because they asssumed I was consciously ignoring them for some reason I’ve talked to my two siblings and learned that they have the same problem as well. None of us knew the other that we were in the same boat together, which highlights the seemingly genetic basis of the disorder.

This is an especially ironic problem given that I am a therapist and therefore regularly deal with people at an extremely familiar, intimate level. When I shared a waiting room with other therapists, I often had to ask colleagues which clients were theirs. Granted, this was back in the day when I saw a conveyer belt of managed care clients, but it was still very awkward. There was also a period when I helped coach my son’s various sports teams, but so many of the little boys looked alike to me, making it very hard to coach effectively on an individual level. By the end of the season I’d sort of know most of the kids’ names, and I always admired and envied the other coaches who knew each kid by name by the end of the first or second practice. In social situations like parties my wife often runs interference for me, subtly reminding me who is who.

I’ve used many strategies to compensate for this problem, all of which have significant drawbacks. I try to be nice to everyone, to speak in a friendly, generic manner to folks when we cross paths. This is pretty easy since I’m naturally good-spirited in my interaction with others. Then comes the challenge of scanning for cues to help me place the person. Do they seem to recognize me? While trying to appear nonchalant I listen very carefully to the flow of conversation for context and clues to identify who is talking to me. I’ve also learned how to walk through even large crowds of people in such a way as to seem to accidently avoid eye contact. Needless to say, this has been a giant challenge to my social life.

For many years I hid this problem for several reasons. For a long time I didn’t even admit to myself that this was an issue. It was easier to think of myself as mentally lazy than neurologically impaired, even though that never seemed to really make sense. I’m simply not a lazy person, and I make my living dealing with people on a deeply personal level. The second reason I didn’t talk about this condition was the awkwardness that comes from admitting to people that faces that should seem familiar to me often just don’t register that way. Many people can relate to a difficulty remembering names, but this is a whole different category. One web page about prosopagnosia shows pictures of various rocks and asks viewers to try to describe or identify each one, for that is similar to the problem I often “face” with people (pun intended).

I’ve found that with consistent effort and repeated exposures (8 to 10 times with a person seems to just about do it) I can begin to fairly reliably recognize a person. I’ve also found that it helps me to simply admit my difficulty as soon as I can. I am finding it easier to say things like “I have a real hard time remembering faces, so please understand that if I don’t seem to recognize you I’m not trying to ignore you. This is a spcific learning disability with a neurologic basis. It would help a lot if you don’t hesitate to remind me of your name the next several times we see each other and any time I don’t seem to recognize you.”

So to paraphrase Dionne Warwick, “If you see me walking down the street/Remind me who you are/Each time we meet/Don’t walk on by!” (By the way -- changing the subject -- for the best version of this song you will ever hear, click here to watch Isaac Hayes sing it in 1969!)

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