I recently received the news that I do not quite have prosopagnosia. This is a bit disappointing, since it means I am not quite eligible to take part in a study that pays $20/hour. Prosopagnosia literally translates as face-blindness. This simply means that a person (who has no other memory problems) has difficulty remembering faces. Knowing I have some trouble with faces, I gave my information to the Dartmouth Social Perception Lab, and I was contacted by a graduate student looking for participants in a study. I happily took a few tests in exchange for a $20 Amazon gift card and a summary of my results. My accuracy on the facial recognition test was 65%—16% lower than the average person’s accuracy and just 7% above the cutoff for a prosopagnosia diagnosis.
Better luck next time I guess.
I began to notice in my twenties that my facial recognition skills left something to be desired. I realized then that most people can recognize common famous people and don’t get confused in movies because they can’t distinguish between two characters with moderately similar appearances. Most people appeared to effortlessly remember faces, although they might forget the corresponding names. I, on the other hand, could easily remember names, but if a person had no obvious distinguishing characteristics, I might have to meet him or her several times before I could recognize the person’s face in context. Out of context, I could only guarantee immediate recognition of my family and best friends.
Facial recognition is key for us humans because we are highly social creatures. It is so important, in fact, that there seems to be a part of the brain solely devoted to recognizing faces. However, the skill of facial recognition isn’t exclusive to humans, or even primates. Dogs can pick out their owner’s face when presented with a photograph of their owner and that of a stranger. Even bees may actually be better at distinguishing human faces than I am. According to one researcher, bees can recognize and differentiate human faces 75% of the time.
I take some solace in the fact that the bees had several hours of training, whereas my test took place over the course of 20 minutes. Still, given that a bee brain is about 20,000 times smaller than my brain, this is not unimpressive.
I don’t know about bees and dogs, but prosopagnosics (and those of us who are not quite bad enough at recognizing faces to qualify as such) find ways to avoid looking like fools. I memorize specific features of a person (bushy eyebrows, curly hair, etc.), and I recognize voices. I learned to always act like I’ve met a person before, even if I’m sure I haven’t. If a stranger walks up to me and clearly knows me, I’ve become skilled at asking vague questions about his life until either it becomes apparent who he is or he goes away. Even with these tools, however, my weakness in facial recognition leads to some embarrassing situations.
I used to take my dog to this one dog park (dog parks are great for me because I’m reasonably good at recognizing dogs, so I can act like I recognize their owners too). There was a woman who also frequented the park with her two, very unmistakable dogs. I often chatted with her, and my dog loved playing catch with her dogs. One day, a different woman was with the dogs. I’d normally trust my dog recognition before my facial recognition, but this time I thought, “I’ve seen this woman quite a bit, I know what she looks like, and this is not her.” The dog walker that day was cute, and since I was single at the time, I decided I’d try to strike up a conversation. I confidently walked up to the woman and said, “Hey! How do you know these dogs?” She responded with, “Umm. I own them?” Things were never quite the same between me and that woman – or her dogs (who probably do recognize her face).
Most people have been in situations like this before, but for those of us who struggle with facial recognition, it’s a common occurrence. In fact, true prosopagnosics have considerably bigger challenges than an embarrassing moment here and there. I’m always particularly mortified though, when the person I fail to recognize is not Caucasian. I’m worried that the person will believe I think all Asians or all black people look alike. I want to assure them as they walk away, “Wait! No, it’s not because you’re Asian. It’s just because you’re human!”
[Illustration via Shutterstock]