Last spring I saw a documentary about the famous portrait artist Chuck Close. One of the things it discussed was that Close has prosopagnosia. More commonly called “face blindness,” this is a disorder in the the brain that makes it very hard to recognize faces… although other objects are recognized normally. For example, if Close sees someone from the front… and then they turn their head in profile, he then can’t recognize them. His brain is unable to connect the person he saw from the front and the profile view of the same face. It’s interesting, too, b/c Close is famous for painting his paintings from photographs, using a very mechanical grid technique… so his portraits, famously, look more like photos than people -- a painting of a photo. But this process makes perfects sense, b/c w/ face blindness it would be very difficult for him to paint a sitter from life (every time they moved their head a bit, his brain would have trouble creating continuity between the two different views of the face)… and the grid technique makes sense b/c prosopagnosia seems to limit the ability to recognize the “gestalt” (the collective whole), so Close uses the grid to break down and map the faces he paints.
Now… I’ve always known I was bad w/ recognizing people and putting together names and faces. After learning about this “face blindness” I began to wonder if I don’t, in fact, have a mild form of the disorder. I primarily recognize people by hair, gait, voice, and clothing… and people are very context-dependent for me. There’s been countless times when someone whom I know will come in w/ a hair cut or dye their hair, and I won’t recognize them at first. At the CAPEX PigPick’n last month, I didn’t recognize somebody I’ve known for years b/c she dyed her hair. (Nobody knew about my failure b/c Ma’am said something that cued me in on who it was.)
As I said, context is also very important for my ability to recognize someone. There have been situations where a coworker whom I’ve known for years (not well… but seen them around the building a lot) will run into me on the street or at K-Mart, and I don’t recognize them. The number of times somebody has said hi to me and my Owner asks, “Who was that?” and I’m like, “I don’t know…” Just a couple of weeks ago, I had someone drop by to see me at work after hours. This is a girl that I’ve seen like once a week for several months… but b/c it was a drop-in outside of any appointed time, I didn’t recognize her. I mistook her for somebody else and handed her the wrong papers… but as soon as she pointed out that I gave her the wrong stuff, I realized who it was and pretended I had known her but wasn’t paying attention to the paper I gave her (less embarrassing than not recognizing someone you’re supposed to know)… and fortunately she bought it.
I’ve learned a lot of covering techniques like that. I watch people for clues if we’re supposed to know one-another. When we go out, I’ll often look to Ma’am for clues if I know somebody – sometimes I just have to quietly ask her, “Who is that?” When I was running the check-in table at CAPEX events, I’d keep Ma’am close by and have the line go past her first b/c she would be able to recognize everyone whereas I often have trouble recognizing some people I’ve known for months or years. Little tricks to cover-up… and usually nobody notices.
I’ve always been this way. I can remember as a small boy, at family gatherings, I would have my older brother identify all the relatives for me, b/c I couldn’t recognize aunts, uncles, and cousins. The thing is… when you’ve been a certain way you’re whole life it’s hard to recognize that there’s anything “wrong” w/ you (especially if it’s your brain we’re talking about -- you have no comparison to go by). I mean… I always have known that I’m bad w/ faces (and also putting names and faces together), but when I saw that documentary about Chuck Close I first started to suspect there may be something neurological going on that would account for this (sometimes embarrassing) inability to recognize people.
So today at work was a slow day w/ time to kill… so I found an online prosopognosia test. I took it. A normal person will score about 85%. If you score below 50% you’re considered face blind. I scored 65%. I think the test was slightly inaccurate b/c most of the faces were white men… and I have noticed that I’m much better at recognizing white men (maybe b/c I am one?) than women or people of color. This is one thing that’s especially tricky b/c there’s the old racist cliché of “they all look alike”… so one of my worst social fears is appearing racist by not being able to tell two people of color apart even though I should know them. (It’s happened to me before.)
But anyway… at 65%, if I don’t actually have prosopagnosia, there is definitely something impaired in my ability to recognize faces. (On the test, I was unable to recognize Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, and Bobby DeNiro… among others.)
If only I could recognize folks by scent and just sniff everybody’s butts…
Video on Face Blindness: