Face Blindness aka Prosopagnosia

Perception is fascinating.

Your experience of sounds and colours and tastes and aromas and experiences may lie in contrast with others. Nature has equipped us with a varied computational device, and a mixed set of sensors, that assesses and computes the world in different ways.

That’s evolution and genetics, mixing up things and seeing how it goes. Which is why any one-size-fits-all education is foolhardy: There is no one-size, and we’re all a mixed grab bag of strengths and weaknesses.

I recently read an article about Steve Wozniak (talking about the new Jobs movie) where it mentioned that he suffered from prosopagnosia, which is a difficulty recognizing faces. I’ve had a similar problem for as long as I can remember.

I had never read about someone with a similar issue, and didn’t know it was a thing. As with most things we just adapt to the situation and reality presented.

If I see people outside of their normal environment (e.g. the teacher at the grocery store, the coworker at the mall, etc) or without some sort of uniform or style or unique attributes that identifies them (e.g. the tall, boisterous guy with the beard, etc.) — things that filter down the probable set to the point where traits can be more uniquely filtered with some degree of confidence — it yields an awkward situation where someone might interact with me and I’m not certain they are who I might think they are (if I make any association at all), trying to tease out heuristics to get a context and make the mapping. Alternately where I don’t solicit engagement, seeming perhaps aloof if not a bit jerkish as I walk by someone I should know and recognize.

This isn’t like all faces are a blur or anything like that — attractive faces are attractive, and notable features are of course observed and remembered — but rather that many faces with similar features fall close enough that identification becomes far less certain, to the point of not having confidence.

I mean, I know the person — and they have every bit as much mindspace and consideration and care — but at the moment the face to person mapping isn’t made as easily as it seems to be made for most people. I’ve gone to parties with coworkers where I wasn’t confident which were my coworker and which were other guests — hair done differently, dressed up, and outside of their normal environment…the normal classifiers fall apart — cautiously listening to figure out who was who.

This has happened with family members. Old friends. New friends. Coworkers. Neighbours. Teachers and associates.

While I often simply avoided situations where confusion or misidentification was possible, other times I would cope by arranging interactions where other people would be forced to identify me first. Meeting someone at the trade show, for instance, and I’d intentionally look at my smartphone at the agreed to meeting location, avoiding looking at the crowd, letting others identify me and start the interaction. I’ve used strategies like this since I was a small child, and honestly never really thought much about them. It was just what needed to be done, and worked out fairly well (aside from those people angry that I didn’t recognize them at the mall or in some other location. My own niece served me at a drive-thru window once and I didn’t realize who it was, needing my wife to make the connection: It isn’t personal). Hopefully along the way I didn’t force someone else with a face identification deficiency into my strategy.

Movies with non-unique characters become a mess of confused plots as it’s hard to separate the various players.

This is fascinating to me, not least because some 2.5% of the population is estimated to have this alternative, less accurate face identification strategy, conveyed via genetics. Maybe the same tweaking of DNA also gave me some programming/technology chops, so c’est la vie.

We are among you. We have strategies and techniques to compensate, but it isn’t personal (or arrogance or self-centeredness, which it may convey the air of) if we don’t immediately recognize you. That doesn’t mean you don’t matter.