One more post about face-blindness then I promise to stop


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In which the syndrome of prosopagnosia demonstrates and exacerbates the problem of finding a photograph that represents the true identity of an older person.

Identity complications of prosopagnosia

Around 2 per cent of people have a brain abnormality known informally as face blindness, and I’m one of them. Either I was born that way or it happened when I got concussion at the age of seven or eight. You probably won’t spot this (apart from thinking I’m a bit weird or rude sometimes), because most of us can cover up with fancy footwork. We refrain from using your name. We use other cues like your hair, clothes, context, and voice to figure out who you are. (Paying close attention to facial detail is useless, even counterproductive.)

Moderate prosopagnasia is not a life-wrecker. Sure, movies, videos and TV can be confusing because everyone looks the same — like potatoes in a bucket. But only rarely have I failed to recognise a husband or son or sister, and many people do kindly tell me their names. So I can live with it.

What if you can’t recognize your own face?

It’s my own face that causes me the most trouble. As a child I would stare in the mirror and struggle to see what made my face any different from all the other faces in my world.

Nowadays I recognise various skin cancer scars and also my jawline from certain angles, which is progress. But in my seventies my face is changing again.

How can I be who I am when I don’t recognize my own face?


Three selfies: three strangers

I took all three of the photos in this post yesterday morning. I haven’t touched anything except the colour.

Although it’s hard to tell other people apart, I know they are not all the same person. I can count, you see. And in a cruel twist, these three selfies look like three different people.  Which one is me?

  1. A half-awake, swollen eyed, lopsided, puffy faced but moderately cheerful old woman?
  2. An intensely wrinkled dried up depressed terrifying old crone with no bones in her face?
  3. A wide awake woman upright and on the move?

I have no idea what other people see when they look at me — and I’m less and less sure it matters.

The aging of identity

I think I’ve spent enough time contemplating who I am (outwardly) and how to be me.

It’s quite difficult enough to do this existential acrobatic trick subjectively. And if I attempted to imagine how other people might see my face, my selfies and my avatars, that would well and truly do my head in.

Please Sergeant Major, may I stop now?

4 thoughts on “One more post about face-blindness then I promise to stop

  1. Val says:

    I’m glad you posted this, Rachel. As you know I have some of this problem. It’s probably not fully-fledged prosopagnosia but I have it enough to know that I get very confused by what I am seeing – other people’s faces as well as my own. You might remember I mentioned that I can recognise people in photos more easily than in real life and that I use the same tricks of memorising what people are wearing.

    Have you tried to analyse the problem at all? Because I have and I think the major problem is that I can’t adjust my image of a face when it moves or has moved position – there are so many different planes – too many for my senses to latch onto and remember as they are so, when the head turns or tilts – off goes the image with it!

    It’s very strange, your three photos. I can recognise that the top half of your face (barring hair) in pic 1 is most like it is in pic 3, but it’s the shape of your head that links the middle to the other two. (And I had to ‘check’ with your userpic!

    As an artist (which I was all my life though I don’t ‘do’ art as such anymore) I can see why there is confusion – the light and shadow is hitting your face at different angles – that’s what forms the shape of an object. Being black and white defines the differences more as the tonalities are sharper… though we probably need that as – for me at any rate – colour confuses the issue.

    While I can’t help you recognise yourself any more than I can help me recognise myself, here is an idea to help visial self-acceptance (if you need it): look at your face as a sculptural form. See where the light is coming from, see what the shadows emphasize. You’re a work of art, as are we all. And I mean that most sincerely.

    Oh and if you have photos of your relatives, see if you have any features in common. I realised recently that the majority of my mother’s family had heavy eyebrows – and I do too ! I used to hate them (the eyebrows) but now it helps me to partially define my visual identity.

  2. Hi Val. Your analysis of how and why you recognise me from the three different photos has certainly started me thinking. It’s good to get an artist’s take on this peculiarity. A 3-D head shape is easier to recognise than a face, this is true. I like your perception of yourself as one of a family; I become more like my mother and one of my sisters every year, which is fine by me.

  3. karenrsanderson says:

    I have never heard of this! Thank you for posting and educating me.

    1. For some writers (for example me), every quirk of the human brain is unreasonably interesting.

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