Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Face Blindness

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.


  1. Well this has been a learning experience for me today. I never knew about face blindness. Also a blogger friend over at The Good Cook was teaching about how to reheat pizza and said to never spray cooking spray into a non stick pan. It will make it sticky and will not work as well but to put olive oil on a towel & rub over the inside of the pan and it will work wonderfully. Never knew but will try it next time. Have a great day.
    Odie :)

  2. This might sound like a strange question, but do you think this effects how you write characters?

  3. Amy,

    It does affect my writing because I can't "see" my characters' faces (I can see everything else about them--but the face area is blank) so I forget to tell readers what my characters' faces look like. (And, honestly, it never occurred to me to include facial characteristics because they aren't that relevant to me.) But once a beta reader pointed out that readers expect it, I put "faces" on my to-do list when I write. I used to keep a list of each character's facial characteristics. But another beta reader suggested that I cut photos out of a magazine. That works really well--I just refer to the photos every time I need to describe what my characters' faces look like.

  4. Wow, I'm fascinated by this. I don't think I'm completely face blind, but my husband is always telling me I can remember names and dates and numbers, but never a face. Interesting.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience. It's fascinating yet scary to me. I didn't know it had been popping up all over the interwebz recently when I posted this week.

  6. Lydia,

    After I posted I realized that I should have included a link to your blog for a medical pov. Sorry.

    Readers, if you want more info, click on Lydia's name to go to her blog.

  7. Wow.. That's simply fascinating!! ..Do you.. uh.. remember my face..?

  8. You know, it seems like there really should be an episode in some mystery drama where the problem is that the chief witness is faceblind.