Artillery Row

Losing face

How do you pick up your nephew if you can’t recognise anyone?

I’d agreed to collect my nephew from school — as the children filed out from reception class I smiled broadly and reached my hand toward the small, sandy-haired boy. But he eyed me suspiciously, shrinking away. Feeling a little awkward, I turned to the woman at door who I presumed was his teacher and laughingly reassured her that I was the child’s aunt and that he was just a bit shy.

“Oh no you’re not!” shouted the child indignity. As I glared at the obstinate little brat, I realised he was right.

In my defence, he was about the same height and colour – which doesn’t narrow things down at a small primary school in the Cotswolds. Pinned by the hostile glare of staff, parents and a phalanx of reception children, I felt I could almost hear the receptionist pressing a panic button as the school “stranger danger” policy came swinging into action. A furious-looking mother pushed past me and pulled the boy — who apparently wasn’t my nephew — away. 

I began to half-heartedly stutter an explanation about “being a bit face-blind”. I was rescued when absent-mindedly trailing behind the pack, my nephew looked up, beamed and shouted: “Hello auntie Josephine!” It had been a close call; at least being the idiot who failed to recognise her own nephew isn’t an indictable offence, unlike attempted child abduction.

My trick is looking at the hair, which works fine until someone gets it cut, restyled or dyed

Face-blindness — or prosopagnosia, as doctors call it — affects around one in 50 people in the UK. It’s a visuo-cognitive condition that is characterised by everyday difficulties in face recognition. Unlike those with severe prosopagnosia, I am able to recognise my own reflection in a mirror, close family members and people I know provided they are within an expected context. But when I leave the house I bimble along with a vague smile in case acquaintances recognise me and think I’m ignoring them. Should anyone wave in my direction I will moronically flap back, just in case it is someone I know. I suspect my neighbours think I am what might be politically incorrectly referred to as “a bit simple”, as some have had to introduce themselves multiple times. 

Dr Rich Cook, Dr Katie Gray and Professor Tim Andrews are the three researchers behind the Trouble with Faces project at Reading University.  They told me:

Our research indicates that people with developmental prosopagnosia (DP) have a problem encoding face structure within their visual system. Primarily this deficit affects judgements about facial identity. For example, relative to neurotypical participants, people with DP find it very difficult to identify celebrities depicted in photographs.

Interestingly, DPs exhibit no impairment when identifying celebrities from their voice, suggestive of a particular problem affecting the visual processing of faces. We also find subtle deficits when DPs are asked to judge other kinds of facial attributes including sex, age, and expression. However, these differences are far less pronounced than those that affect identity recognition, and typically have little impact on the lives of DPs.

The team also research “non-face object recognition problems” as some of those with DP also “report difficulties identifying cars and bicycles”. The researchers behind the Trouble with Faces project hope that by isolating which objects some people with DP fail to recognise they “may glean new insights into the origins of the condition, and the organisation of the human visual system more broadly”.

Prosopagnosia can be acquired through brain injury or it can be developmental. In my case it is developmental; others in my family are similarly afflicted which is unsurprising as studies suggest the condition is congenital. DP is more common in those on the autistic spectrum, but it exists independently; some research suggests people with DP have been misdiagnosed as autistic.

Having face-blindness means I have little choice but to walk around smiling

DP is often accompanied by topographical agnosia — difficulty recognising places. The late Professor Oliver Sacks had both, and in addition to failing to recognise people would regularly get lost even in his own neighbourhood, though he didn’t realise he had either condition until middle age. In an article for the New Yorker Sacks recalled that he had arranged to meet his personal assistant of six years in a hotel lobby. On arriving he announced himself to the receptionist and went to sit down.

“I saw a young woman there but did not realize that it was her. After about five minutes, smiling, she said, ‘Hello, Oliver. I was wondering how long it would take you to recognize me.’”

Others to have spoken about their experience of the condition include actor Stephen Fry and primatologist Jane Goodall. 

People with DP tend to develop coping strategies, such as making a mental note of clothing styles, distinctive glasses or posture. My trick is hair, which works fine until someone gets it cut, restyled or dyed. 

It can be isolating and it can be embarrassing. But, on the plus side, having DP means I have little choice but to walk around smiling. Should you ever see me at an event, please do say “hello” — but don’t expect me to recognise you the next time.

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