Many of us are bad at remembering names, but can still pick out a former colleague or old flame when they pop up on social media.
However, a new Harvard University study finds that up to 5.42 percent of people struggle with the opposite problem.
‘Prosopagnosia’, or face blindness, is a condition where you can no longer recognize faces you have seen before, including those of friends and family.
It can also lead to you not being able to identify yourself in photos or in the mirror, or feeling like you know complete strangers.
Last year, Brad Pitt spoke about his experience with the condition, admitting that “no one believes him” when he talks about it.
“Prosopagnosia,” or face blindness, is a condition that causes the person to be unable to recognize faces they’ve seen before, including those of friends and family (stock image)
Childcare worker Hannah Read, who has the worst case of face blindness in the UK, said ‘every face looks the same’ and is just ‘two eyes, a nose and a mouth’.
What is Face Blindness?
Prosopagnosia is a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize human faces.
Also known as ‘face blindness’, the severity of the condition depends on the degree of impairment a person suffers.
Some people with prosopagnosia may only have difficulty recognizing a familiar face, while others are unable to distinguish between unfamiliar faces, and in more severe cases, sufferers are unable to distinguish a face from an object.
Some patients cannot recognize their own face.
Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, comedian Stephen Fry and former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt are among those who have admitted to suffering from face blindness.
Source: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Those with the disorder cope by using alternate ways of recognizing people, such as remembering the way they walk, or their hairstyle, voice, or clothing.
It is believed to be the result of abnormalities, damage or dysfunction in the right fusiform gyrus – a fold in the brain that appears to coordinate face perception and memory.
Prosopagnosia can result from stroke, traumatic brain injury, or some neurodegenerative diseases, but in some cases it is present at birth.
It appears to run in families, making it likely the result of a genetic mutation or deletion.
While it’s widely reported that between 2 and 2.5 percent of the world’s population has some form of face blindness, researchers set out to find its true prevalence in a new study, published in the journal Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
They recruited 3,341 individuals to complete three different online surveys, the first asking them to describe their own experiences of recognizing faces in their daily lives.
The next two were then objective tests that gauged their ability to learn new faces and recognize familiar faces, respectively.
The results showed that 31 individuals had a severe form of prosopagnosia, while 72 had a mild form – a total of three percent of the study participants.
They also found that participants could easily recognize faces and those who could not were not clearly distinguishable.
Instead, most of them fell somewhere on a spectrum of severity and presentation, in a similar way to other developmental disorders such as autism and Alzheimer’s disease.
Last year, Brad Pitt described his experience with face blindness and admitted that “no one believes him” when he talks about it
The researchers then used different diagnostic criteria to rate some of the participants with face blindness.
Depending on how strict these were, they identified prosopagnosia between 0.13 and 5.42 percent of the group.
Interestingly, it also turned out that the stricter criteria did not always identify the individuals who were the worst at recognizing faces.
As a result, they concluded that scientists investigating the disorder should relax their threshold for diagnosis and split people by “mild” or “severe” case.
Diagnostic criteria for face blindness vary, but researchers at King’s College London have created a short questionnaire for people who suspect they have it.
People are asked how strongly they agree with sentences such as ‘I often mistake people I’ve met before for strangers’ or ‘I sometimes find movies difficult to follow because of character recognition problems’.
Other questions include, “When I was in school, I had trouble recognizing my classmates” or “When people change their hair or wear hats, I have trouble recognizing them.”
Each question is scored out of five, giving a total score of up to 100. This final score can be used to determine the severity of face blindness.
DO YOU HAVE FACIAL BLINDNESS? TAKE THE TEST TO FIND OUT
The following statements ask about your facial recognition ability.
For each item, please indicate how much you agree or disagree by choosing the correct numbered answer on a scale of one to five.
One stands for strongly agree, five stands for strongly disagree.
Please read each item carefully before responding and answer as honestly as possible.
1. My facial recognition skills are worse than most people’s
2. I’ve always had a bad memory for faces
3. I find it noticeably easier to recognize people with distinctive facial features
4. I often mistake people I’ve met before for strangers
5. When I was in school, I had trouble recognizing my classmates
6. When people change their hairstyles or wear hats, I have trouble recognizing them
7. Sometimes I have to warn new people I meet that I’m bad with faces
8. I find it easy to imagine individual faces
9. I’m better than most people at putting a “name on a face”
10. Without hearing people’s voices, I have trouble recognizing them
11. Fear of facial recognition has caused me to avoid social or professional situations
12. I have to try harder than other people to remember faces
13. I am confident that I can recognize myself in photographs
14. I sometimes find movies difficult to follow because of character recognition problems
15. My friends and family think I have poor facial recognition or facial memory
16. I feel that I often offend people by not recognizing who they are
17. It is easy for me to recognize people in situations where people have to wear similar clothes (e.g. suits, uniforms, swimwear)
18. At family gatherings, I sometimes confuse individual family members
19. I find it easy to spot celebrities in “before they were famous” photos, even if they’ve changed significantly
20. It is difficult to recognize familiar people when I meet them out of context (for example, bumping into a colleague unexpectedly while shopping
For each question, except those listed below, score one point from 1-5 (with 1 strongly disagree and 5 strongly agree).
Items 8, 9, 13, 17 and 19 must be scored reversed. i.e. 5 = 1; 4 = 2; 3 = 3; 2 = 4; 1 = 5 2.
Add the numbered answers together to calculate a score between 20 (unimpaired facial recognition) and 100 (severely impaired facial recognition)
Source: Medical Research Center