Remembering faces

818.609  You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness, by Heather Sellers (2010).

I’ve always thought of myself as being terrible at remembering faces (not to mention names!), so I was intrigued when I heard a bit recently about face blindness, a condition in which a person has difficulty recognizing the faces of even the most familiar people.  When I took an online test of facial recognition, though, my results were solidly average– I recognized the vast majority of the faces, often without having to think about them.  (The ones I tended to flub were public figures in the UK– probably because I get almost all of my news via the radio and so am only familiar with faces that show up often on magazines in grocery store checkout lines.)  It’s a little embarrassing when I fail to recognize someone who I met the previous week, but I could easily remedy the problem by just paying attention and putting more effort into remembering people.

For people who are truly face blind, the implications of the condition are far more profound; they can see faces and comprehend them as such, but they have no idea if they’ve ever seen any particular face before.  An individual with severe face-blindness can’t even recognize the face of his or her own spouse!  Most face-blind people come up with ways to work around the problem, like recognizing hairstyles, gait, voice, and other clues.  Still, imagine how damaging it can be for any relationships, from casual acquaintance to work colleagues to marriage, to fail to recognize the people with whom you interact all the time.

I chose to read Sellers’ book because I thought it would give some insight into the social aspects of face blindness.  The book did give a sense of how frustrating and isolating face blindness can be, but I hadn’t really realized that it’s largely a memoir of an unrelentingly grim childhood shaped by an alcoholic father and a mother with undiagnosed schizophrenia.  Sellers is an excellent writer, but the subject matter is not for me.

My recommendation: Check out Radiolab, a science program out of WNYC, and listen to the podcast about two well-known individuals who are profoundly face-blind : neuroscientist Oliver Sacks and (portrait!) artist Chuck Close.

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