I’m not sure why this has become a hot topic lately. I know there was a New Yorker article on face blindness so perhaps that’s it. But for whatever reason, it’s become a fascination. And I’ve gotten a few questions/comments on it. You see, I’m face blind.
Now I don’t have the horrible version where people don’t recognize themselves or their spouse or their children. I’m part of the 2 to 2.5% of the population that has a mild version of face blindness. I didn’t even realize I was face blind until about ten years ago—I just thought everyone had “trouble” with faces.
Ten years ago, we were asked to participate in the Family Study of Autism at the University of Washington. We have a son with autism and since it is at least partly a genetic disorder, we were asked to participate (close relatives of autistic people often have “autistic traits”). What I didn’t know is that face blindness has a strong correlation with autism. At that point, I’d never even heard of face blindness. So we were put through batteries of tests. At one point, I was shown 6 to 10 faces and told that they’d be showing me a series of faces and I would need to pick out these particular faces. Sounds easy, right? Except I was uneasy about the task. I knew faces weren’t my forte. I just didn’t know I’d be that bad. I scored a zero. Yep, a nil, nada. zilch. I didn’t even get lucky by accident—and, believe me, I was guessing my heart out. But I didn’t get one single face.
I could claim I had a really bad memory. But the next test was the exact same thing, except they substituted intricate line drawings for faces. I got 100%. No memory issues. I have to admit I was nonplussed by the whole thing. Especially when Cal got 100% on the faces test. (I beat him on the line drawing thing though—not that that has any benefit in real life.)
So what’s it like? That’s what people are curious about. My experience isn’t much different than yours. I learn to recognize people—but by their hair, build, proportional stature (couples are generally easier for me to recognize than individuals). And my family helps. For example, a lot of college students attend our church and in the fall semester when we get a lot of new students, Ariel helps me. Me: Uh, Ariel, who are all the tall blond girls? Every week she goes over their names and distinguishing characteristics until I get them straight.
And yes, it does make for funny moments. Movies can be hard—especially if a character doesn’t have lots of distinct features. (Thankfully, Hollywood usually chooses distinct faces, i.e. Julia Roberts is the-woman-with-the-horse-like-smile). Without distinct features...
Me: Uh, Cal, why is that guy trying to kill the main character?
Cal (heavy sigh): That’s the crazy neighbor. Don’t you remember in the first couple of minutes of the movie he was killing the jogger?
Me: Are you sure that was him?
Cal (heavier sigh): YES.
Once Cal asked if it would bother me if he shaved his beard and mustache. I said, “No problem.” He shaved. Within the hour, I said, “Please, grow it back immediately.” Even though I knew it was him, without the mustache it was like living with a stranger and my heart beat faster (not in a good way) every time I turned and saw him. He’s never shaved it off again. Phew!
Or lately, I met someone whom I had “never” met before. I mentioned to Cal after we saw this person “for the first time,” “Wasn’t it nice to meet that man?” Cal: “Are you serious?” Me: “Um, yeah.” Cal: “Don’t you remember when we were at (public place) and there was a drunk man who became very belligerent and I had to call the police?” Me (I remembered the incident completely): “Are you sure that was him?” Cal: “Absolutely.” Me: “Oh.”
I’m a police artist’s worst nightmare.