Face blindness a real problem for some

  • Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I work at the Mount Pleasant Library, and you probably wouldn’t guess that I would have much in common with Brad Pitt. But actually, it looks like I do.

Pitt recently mentioned in an interview that he often doesn’t recognize people that he should, and that he now realizes he probably has a problem called face blindness. Based on his description of his difficulties, I think he’s probably right.

The technical term for face blindness is prosopagnosia, and I first heard about it a number of years ago. I read a Dear Abby column, and the letter-writer described his inability to remember and recognize faces, which was so bad that he didn’t even recognize his own mother when she showed up unexpectedly in the store where he worked. I was so excited to find out that there was someone else who had the same sorts of difficulties with recognizing faces as I did.

Although I’ve known that I had this condition for a long time, I really didn’t tend to tell people about it much, until recently. My tendency over the years has been to muddle along, trying to recognize people the best I can by their size, shape, haircut, age, voice, beard, etc. Since the Mount Pleasant Library is relatively small, I don’t have much trouble recognizing my co-workers, and can even recognize some of the “regulars” as well.

I did have a funny conversation with a new employee, Mike, recently. I explained my face blindness, but reassured him that I wouldn’t have much trouble recognizing him, since he’s the only guy working here with a beard. He looked a bit confused, and said, “Well, you mean me and Mark.” “What? Mark has a beard?” You see, Mark is extra tall, so that’s how I recognize him. The beard had not even registered.

Researchers believe that about two percent of the general population has face blindness, and the severity of the condition can vary. Many cases go undiagnosed, as there are many people who have never heard of the condition, and think they’re “just really bad at recognizing people.” Some cases are caused by a blow to the head or a stroke, but there are many people, like myself, who have been faceblind for as long as they can remember. In some cases, there’s a genetic link, with several members of a family affected. In these cases, there appears to usually be a lesion on the part of the brain that recognizes faces, which means that people with face blindness must use another, less specialized part of the brain for the task – and that part just can’t do the job as well.

There aren’t a lot of books about face blindness, but our library does have two that I can recommend. Oliver Sacks is a neurologist who suffers from face blindness himself, and there’s a chapter about the condition in his book “The Mind’s Eye.” I learned a lot from this one. For instance, I had long wondered if my inability to remember directions and geography might be connected to my face blindness, and Sacks confirmed that this is true of many, though not all prosopagnosics. Also, many of us don’t tend to notice details in objects or animals well either: a car is a car, a bird is a bird – most of them look pretty much the same to me.

The other book I can recommend is called “You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know” by Heather Sellers. This one was such fun for me to read, as I identified so strongly with her struggles. Like the author, I had a boyfriend briefly in college that I had to “give up” because it was too embarrassing – his looks were so ordinary that I simply could not pick him out of a crowd.

If you think you might have face blindness, you can search for information on the internet, and even take some face recognition tests to see how well (or poorly) you score on them. There is a “60 Minutes” episode to watch, and there are at least two Facebook pages, where you’ll find links to articles and videos and such. So far, scientists have not figured out a way to “fix” face blindness, but research is ongoing. I haven’t met anyone yet (in person) who has told me that they also have face blindness, but I’ve enjoyed getting to “talk” with some online. If Brad Pitt is anything like me, he’s probably relieved to have figured out that there’s a reason for his struggles with recognizing people, and is glad that people are starting to hear about and understand this little-known condition.

Library programs

Mount Pleasant Reel Club (for adults)

Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 2 p.m.

Read the book, come watch the movie with us, and then discuss.

Book: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J. K. Rowling

Movie: “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” Rated PG; 152 min.

Read for the Record (for ages 3-5)

Thursday, Oct. 3 at 11:30 a.m.

Celebrate Read for the Record and listen to “Otis” by Loren Long.

Do-It-Yourself Arts and Crafts (all ages)

Saturday, Oct. 5 from 1:30-3 p.m.

Arts and Crafts with Ms. Grace.

One Book Discussion (for adults)

Monday, Oct. 7 at 10:30 a.m.

“Divergent” by Veronica Roth

One Book Family Movie Series (for all ages)

Tuesdays at 4 p.m.

Watch a family film representative of a “Divergent” faction.

Oct. 8 - Amity Faction – “October Sky.” Rated PG; 108 minutes.

Oct. 15 - Candor Faction – “RV.” Rated PG; 99 minutes.

Basic Astronomy Under the Dome (for all ages)

* Children under 10 must be accompanied by an adult *

Wednesday, Oct. 9 from 6-7:30 p.m.

Thirty-minute sessions start at 6 p.m., 6:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Explore the night sky in this exciting portable indoor planetarium program. An October evening sky map is included.

Writing Critique Group (for adults & teens 16+)

Saturday, Oct. 12 from 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Open to all writers. See Reference Desk for information.


Fall Babygarten (for babies and toddlers 0-18 months, with caregiver)

Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 2, 9, 16, 23, 30 and Nov. 6

Thursdays at 10 a.m. Oct. 3, 10, 17, 25, 31 and Nov. 7

Time for Twos (for 2-3 year-olds, with caregiver)

Tuesdays at 10:30 a.m. - Oct. 8, 15, 22 and 29

Preschool Storytime (for 3-5 year-olds, with caregiver)

Mondays at 3:30 p.m. - Oct. 7, 14, 21 and 28

Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. - Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31

Lua Wells recently gave a TEDx talk about unschooling called “Skipping School” which can be found on the internet. She can be found most days helping people at the Mount Pleasant Regional Library, 1133 Mathis Ferry Road, 843-849-6161.

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