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“Coming Out” as Face Blind (narrative.ly)
115 points by kawera 11 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments

The bit about structuring conversations in a way to tease out if the other person recognizes you resonates with me. It can be fun, in the sense of being a challenge or game, once you get used to it. Now I'm older and more "over" myself, I'll often just admit if I don't recognize you now.

I don't think I have what this woman has to the same degree, but I have a condition which causes me to fail to remember social and physical situations in any easily recallable way which results in similar problems.

Yeah, this resonated with me too. I can recognize faces, but I'm terrible with remembering names, or even remembering whether I ever knew a name. I can know someone casually for months and have their name just disappear from my memory, or I can see someone I know I recognize, but have no memory of whether or not I've actually been introduced to them and learned their name. Those are the worst—not knowing whether I've just seen someone before, or if I actually should know their name, so not knowing whether to introduce myself.

I find that if I learn a little bit about someone when I meet them it can help a bit, as it anchors the name to something in my memory. Otherwise, just being honest feels best: "Hey, I recognize you, but I'm terrible with names... what's your name again?" Works alright whether I've been introduced to them in the past or not.

More recently I’ve found if I meet someone new, either at work or socially, I write down their name, or email it to myself on my phone.

After the initial interaction I can then make any additional notes I think might help in remember relevant information about the person.

I don’t keep any of this info, afterwards I’ll either know their name from repeat interactions and delete it as unneeded, or not need it anyway, and delete it or throw it out.

On a similar note, repetition is a great way to remember names.

Try to repeat the persons name in conversation a few times, just slip in in there.

For instance, if they say their name is Charles, respond with "So Charles, how's your day been so far?".

Not only does it help you remember their name, you're also more personable.

Since I've started consciously doing this, it's helped a lot.

I'm terrible with names. It's entirely possible for me to meet someone and know practically their entire life story, but not remember their name.

I do this all the time when meeting new people. my memory for facial recognition is much better than an unaided association to a name alone, so shortly after meeting a new person, I try to mention some aspect of their appearance in a sentence. e.g. "Hey Steve - you've got a cool hairstyle."

It can come off weird to some people, but their name would be forgotten in seconds otherwise, so I've decided it's a worthwhile method.

I work in a noisy environment and many of the intros are quite brief as a new starter is being shown around and I’m busy doing my job, so I’ve taken up quickly jotting it down.

But in other situations the repartition method has and does work really well too. Also, immediately introducing the new person to someone else works strongly too.

I had success with putting these kinds of things into anki flashcards for a while but didn't keep up with it. I need to start that again.

How did you do this? Did you take photos of the person and include it in the deck?

I want to do something similar to this, but haven't really nailed down how it would work ('hi nice to meat you IanCal! Could I, uh... take a photo of you?')

I bet even without a picture, the act of writing down the name (or even better a name and a couple details about the person) would be enough to lock the name into my memory. Maybe I need to start that too...

Not with faces, but names and important or useful info (what they do, kids, interests).

The difficulty is remembering until I would get a chance to do it.

I always thought I had a hard time putting together faces and names even though I have a pretty great memory otherwise. So one evening at a party with mostly strangers I made an effort to really ask everyone their names make mnemonic devices and repeating them like I would for stuff I actually care about. At the end of the evening I still knew the names of ever single of the 30 something people I just met. Which proved to me conclusively that I just don’t happen to give a shit.

How many of those people's names did you remember a week or a month later?

The resonant bit for me was movies. If characters are sufficiently visually different, I'm fine. But if it's a movie about a bunch of similar people, I'm screwed. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was about a bunch of middle-aged English dudes all dressed as British civil servants. At some point I just gave up.

Yes - this sort of thing. I find it especially difficult with e.g. TV series where the main actress changes her hair halfway through - I almost always need to ask if it’s the same person.

In “Orphan Black”, It wasn’t until very far in that I realised Rachel was also a clone; without the narrative clue, I just had no idea.

I'm a little face blind and a little name blind, so one trick I've used for years is to ask someone to remind me of their email address. (How do you spell your alias again?)

Hah! One of my tricks is to introduce people. "Hey, have you two met?" Often they haven't, so they'll then say their names.

The standard format in the UK for an introduction is usually considered something like:

    1 : have you two met?
    (2, 3 indicate no)
    1 to 2 : this is 3, she's a number too
    1 to 3 : this is 2, he's prime
I guess it depends on local factors.

Same here. But if I have forgotten a name or failed to recognize somebody who obviously recognizes me, I'll do the first step and hopefully the second step, and then pause. From there, people self-introduce (something they do all the time if there's nobody to introduce them).

You try to aim for an informal introduction. Get two people close together, nudge them towards each other, say the "have you two ever met?" line, and just leave it to them to exchange greetings.

I’ve heard a similar trick about asking for their name but then saying oh I meant your last name.

Admitting is fine, the problem is when you pass by people on the street and don't talk to them at all. A family member of mine has made enemies from people who assumed she was slighting them on purpose. Nowadays she actually explains her condition to new people she meets.

That really isn't face blindness.

That's self important people thinking they can demand attention by simply existing.

There's no either/or in the kind of situation. It isn't EITHER "you did recognize me and avoided me on purpose because you hate me, and we're enemies now" OR "you have a debilitating disorder and are blameless" because that puts the recognizer on trial for a crime, in a world where failing to kiss the ring breaks the law.

Truly, it's not a crime to blow past people while you're in a hurry, and the enemies your friend made are simply demanding assholes.

I've had the inverse happen, where I see someone's evil twin doppelganger, stare hard at them, walk over, and then... Oh! It wasn't them, it's just a total stranger.

Recognition and social grace don't have hard rules. Same goes for being late to work. If you have some dick boss who fires people for failing to have their ass in the chair by 9:01 AM, better to break that rule hard and often up front, and find out that the boss is tyrranical overlord, and get fired in a week, than live on for years with the spectre of doom hanging over your head.

I wish it was easier for people to “come out” with their deficiencies. I’m miserable on the phone for example. I just can’t really communicate unless I’m looking at the person on the other end. Yet there are a lot of circumstances where there’s no other option, chief among which is discussing business opportunities. It’s stupid. Videoconferencing has been out there for 15 years, yet people are still not willing to accommodate such a minor request.

You sound like you might have CAPD. A common coping mechanism is lip reading to help fill in missing auditory information, often without consciously realizing it.

I don't know what your situation is, but my sons just don't use the phone. I handle all phone calls.

I'm so used to us just side stepping such issues that I have trouble imagining feeling obligated to connect a certain way. Some people prefer email. Some people prefer texting. Etc.

Probably not. I’m perfectly fine with audiobooks, for example.

What if the other person is bad at videoconferenes? I find them extremely awkward compared to talking face to face, and I know some people find them very distracting.

I’m sure some other mode of communication could be used. Email is fine for most things, TBH. In some cases I’m ok with stopping by in person, at my own expense.

I remember attending a party once and introducing myself to someone who, it turned out, I had met and had an extensive conversation with about an hour earlier. I totally didn't recognize this person.

I don't have full-on face blindness. I do recognize the faces of people I see a lot. But I still struggle to remember people's names, especially if I don't see them every day.

I hesitate to write this, but it seems that face-blindness could be related to autism spectrum. I know someone who is diagnosed on the spectrum and has face blindness and feels the social anxiety of it in much the same way as the author. Also, the author describes several behaviors that are on the spectrum.

I also noticed that many of the anxieties described by the author were projected and not materialized. She was afraid of how people would react and how she would feel in awkward situations, but when it finally happened and she admitted her condition, it went fine. Shyness and social anxiety have an element of self-fulfilling prophecy.

You really have to wonder, from an evolutionary perspective, how and when this skill became so modular and specialized, that mostly everyone is born with this innate capability.

If you take this idea, that facial recognition is a modular specialization that most humans have inherited at birth (such that it can be added or subtracted from a person's instinctive skills, leaving everything else more or less untouched), and cross it over to other species, I'd take a wild guess that this is the missing piece in animals that fail to recognize themselves in mirrors.

Comparing elephants and dolphins with dogs and cats, it's tempting to contemplate that while dogs and cats can become familiar with us, they're likely face blind. Elephants and dolphins, while capable of passing mirror self recognition tests to a certain degree, are probably not as adept, because they lack the same socialization demands that have intensely pressured humans for a couple thousand years.

I have to figure in earlier periods of human history, an inability to recognize individuals, especially in similarly peopled enclaves might have been supremely deadly. Not just boss-in-the-elevator deadly (as mentioned in the article), but literally stab-you-in-the-back deadly.

So much so, that we aren't born with other skills like capable of walking directly after being birthed, like other animals, but for the most part, by age three, if we can recognize faces, we can pick our parents out of a line up.

We know literacy and written language is a hard driver of civilization. I wonder how much, the innate capacity for human facial recognition plays into the ability to read text? It seems like dyslexia is related to the degree of rendomization of the pattern of receptors in the eyes, but facial recognition seems strongly bound to processing and memory.

Is it a prevailing trait that predates history, or is the capacity to record history, and history's emergence and fidelity concurrent with the prevalence of human facial recognition as almost pure instinct?

Furthermore, imagine a world where the selective pressure is removed, and the trait is replaced by an augmented reality product, a device that recognizes people for you. How easily ruled would those people of the future be?

Please note: facial recognition is learned, not innate.



Some aspect of it must be innate, or it wouldn't be possible for people to have face blindness.

That's specious reasoning: something being learnt doesn't mean that people can't have an adaptation that aids, or inhibits, that particular learning.

Running isn't innate, we learn to do it. Most children do it. But some people lack the apparatus, some are just habituated against it, some are impaired in other ways. And, running is a defining characteristic of humans. (It's not a perfect analogy but I think it fits)

Not only that. From TFA:

  Prosopagnosia appears to be different from other 
  neurological memory problems because it doesn’t cause 
  any other issues with memory and isn’t always caused by 
  brain damage — as in my case, it can be developmental 
  and genetic. 
@schaefer: "Thanks."

To some extent, all visual processing is learned. See, for example:


But, yes, you need that part of your brain to be functional to start with as a prerequisite.

This seems completely wrong to me. They are just showing that part of the brain that are not used during the infancy are not going to develop. We already knew that thanks to the studies on feral children, but it has nothing to do with their assertion that we are unable to recognise faces from the beginning and it is just a learned behaviour.

Not trying to bombard you but here is an article which includes a reference paper talking about the difference between the Macaque and Human brain (regarding attention—so not the same thing—I’ll see if I can find anything regarding more specific processing): https://www.theverge.com/2015/7/13/8951797/human-brain-atten...:

Thanks for the link. This doesn’t match up with a lot of anecdotal evidence in humans. If it is primarily learned it’s also possible that some people specialize in a different way which could be checked using real-time FMRI. Chimpanzees tend to be used for most comparisons to humans— I wonder why they used Macaques.

I have a mild version of this - usually I lean on a person's trappings, context, or they might hit a sort of LRU cache. In a crowded situation though all bets are off. Makes dating difficult - I've walked past girlfriends multiple times. Even if you try to disclaim this Prosopagnosia thing, there is a sort of innate offense you give when you don't recognize someone. The eyes give it away. Also if I look you up and down I'm not (necessarily) checking you out, I'm looking for distinctive characteristics.

The Wikipedia list of (famous) people with face blindness is super interesting. Chuck Close (who cites it as inspiration for his portrait work), Jane Goodall, Markos Moulitsas, Oliver Sacks, Woz...


Wow Steve Wozniak, never expected to see him on there.

I have a child with this issue. He doesn't live with constant stress over it. I had not really thought about how well we accommodate it. The article was eye opening in that regard.

We've learned lots of tidbits over the years that help him feel okay about it. For example, normal people are more reliant on context than they realize and can fail to recognize someone out of uniform or met someplace different than the norm.

For example, see Person Swap:


On the opposite spectrum of face blindness, there has been recent progress in the field of identifying "Super recognisers".


Super recognisers are able to remember faces very well and score high on the Glasgow Face Matching Test.

I’m pretty sure I’m close to at least eighty percent recall in person(the online tests are questionable). I used to creep people out growing up by walking up to them and saying “Hi,” after seeing/meeting them once. It took me until college to realize I was even doing it. I’m terrible with names though. You can tell me your name three times and there’s a chance I will not remember it. I would rather be somewhat good at both than really good at one and bad at the other. Not saying they are necessarily linked—but remebering the face without the name can get awkward. I have learned to repeat the name in conversation and try to link it with an object, color of clothing, or something distinctive. My mother oddly is extremely bad with faces—almost to the point it seems like she is face blind. Which is odd considering how good at it I am. She has a hard time interpreting faces in movies and as a result seems to have a hard time following the narrative.

I use to be similar, once I spotted a person in the orchestra of a concert that I'd met c.12 years earlier when they were 7.

Now, I can't remember people who I saw a week ago; nearly everyone looks familiar.

I would speak to a neurologist. The sharp change you describe would seem odd to me. I wonder if my mom used to be better at recognizing people as well.

Thanks for the advice. I'm diagnosed with a serotonin deficiency based depression which appears to affect memory too, which could be the cause; it's not a sharp change, it's over at least a decade.

interesting. for once I'm one of those people in the comments claiming an exceptional condition. for most of my life I've been able to "place a face" almost every single time. as a kid it would manifest itself when I would recognize kids from the various schools I'd attended while moving around. lately it's been recognizing people around town that I've seen on dating apps (I live in a smaller town now but it happened when I was living in NYC too). too bad it's basically a worthless talent (other than the occasional person that's charmed that I remembered them from some conversion we'd had years ago). ironically I'm shit at remembering names.

Yep, in this day in age it's almost horrible when you can go, oh right I saw that person's picture on the internet randomly, we've never actually met, or even talked.

I have this as well; I remember faces (and usually where I saw them) even from a young age; I recognize people who I have not seen for 30+ years. It's sometimes annoying when I visit places where I used to hang out a lot and I recognize people passing buy who I have not seen for such a long time; of course they really do not recognize me. Also I recognize faces in different races as well which apparently is something people struggle with.

A bigger issue is that I do not remember names at all; I remember faces and can tell you context ('we were in a bookshop in Utrecht, I was holding an ocaml book') but I cannot remember a name of anyone unless I regularly meet and talk with them. Even when I did work close with people; their faces stay, their names go. It's very weird because I have a good memory otherwise (I remember most telephone numbers I ever had to remember for instance) but names are just complete blanks. Human names, movie character names, movie names, song names, band names; they all are not there when I try to recall them, while I can basically recite the first Pascal program I wrote.

Strange and embarrassing sometimes; I recognize someone immediately and then have to say 'he! how are you and how is your guitar playing going?' (remembering all the context besides the name). My wife has the opposite; she has the cannot recognize faces but remembers all names.

Edit: my skill came in handy when we ran a dating site to get abusers off; I remembered when I saw someone before and removed them again. I can imagine it would work(ed/AI) well in law enforcement.

I had a girlfriend who was faceblind. She had to explain this to me once, as she walked right by me in a library we were meeting at, as I had cut and dyed my hair.

She had some autoimmune diseases and believed/had read up that her face blindness was likely an effect of the chronic pain she dealt with.

I might have a mild face blindness. I was never diagnosed, and might never be. This has never affected me in any way (other then a few awkward interactions). I am able to recognize people as soon as the start talking, sometimes I can even recognize people when they start moving. I also recognize people by their clothes, hair, etc.

My wife was the first one to notice I might have this condition (and yes it has happened more then once that I don’t recognize her). This is despite the fact that I have a BS in psychology and had read a lot about face blindness in university. It just never occurred to me that I might have this. Those awkward moments I mentioned earlier, I usually blamed on me not paying attention, being stupid, shy or something else.

Very interesting article. Too bad google glass didn't catch up, or we could set up reasonably inconspicuous face recognition to help these people. Otherwise, I guess they could have a hidden camera somewhere on them and a (wireless) earbud that tells them who's in front of them.

That sounds like a much better solution than google glass, and one that we could even build in a weekend.

I think it would be harder than that. Bear in mind that this will use images of moving targets from strange angles in poor lighting. Is there any system that works that well, even out of something like Facebook or Google? Plus this has to be portable and battery-operated.

I know nothing about computer vision.

the real issue is where to mine the names and pictures from. Facebook? LinkedIn? The tighter the pool of people the best the face recognition will be. Asking people to enter everyone in by hand is probably unreasonable, though I'm not sure

I think just the system recognizing faces that it's seen before would be good enough. Entering by hand isn't too bad.

When it detects a new face, add it to the "seen faces" list, and let the user go back though that (sorted most recent at the top) whenever they like, to add names and maybe a short note like "met at party in LA". So you have to remember their name yourself but only momentarily until you can enter it into the local DB.

Whenever that face is detected again, it shows the info.

That way you can skip Internet connectivity on the device entirely.

I have a similar problem and have never been able to figure it out: random people look like people I know. Nearly every day I see someone who I'm sure is someone else. What I have to do is stare at them very pointedly, and if they look away I know it's not someone I'm acquainted with. It feels to me very similar to the way the author describes her condition, only it's sort of opposite in a way.

Sorry I don’t know how to word this but why would it be upsetting if people asked her questions about living with this?

I’d like to know just so I can be more sensitive in the future. I’d have never thought it would be a problem and would have asked way too many questions. Is this unique to this case or something I should avoid in general?

It isn't unique to this case - anyone who is different will get genuine questions over it. But there are a few problems I have with it:

1) The medical details of my life aren't any of your business. And people tend to let their curiosity cross those lines. They don't do it deliberately, and it doesn't bother everyone. But it is absolutely personal.

2) When we do get questions, we get the same questions all the time. To be blunt, I get tired of answering them.

3) For my particular problems, I have a pile of symptoms and things that trigger them, but no formal diagnosis of anything (even after years of doctors). I just don't like to get into it because once people dig in, they start trying to help. Try this herb, try this pill, see my doctor, etc. They mean well. And they really think they are suggesting things I haven't already done. But all it really does is rekindle old frustrations.

So everyone is different. Many people won't have my obvious bitterness from #3. Some people are fine with questions. But you never know. We are all different people. So I'd recommend not asking questions. But at the same time, that doesn't mean to avoid the subject. There is a nice balance where you just talk about the direct impact it has on the current situation without turning it into a huge conversation. And if you get to know someone well enough, just ask them directly if they mind questions.

Don't ever feel bad about honest curiosity due to wanting to understand another. Some people won't want to talk about things, and that's ok. Accept and move on. But most people will, and it is not rude to, at the very least, ask if it is ok to ask. If someone gets offended at even that level of question, that's on them, not you.

Don't worry, if you read the article well and then read her other article you'll see what kind of person she is and why she comes up with that conclusion. You are probably wise enough to know when it's socially appropriate to ask questions, so go on.

Is there a corresponding condition where you know faces, but cannot match them to names?

That's called being in the majority of the entire human race.

You aren’t alone. My face recognition is spotty: I had two students in different classes; both same height, white hair, mustaches -- and it took me six weeks to tell them apart. I have a decent memory for student names. However, the face recognition and name memory parts of my brain don’t talk to one another.

I knew a guy with this. I also have a friend who looks rather like me.

One day we both sat down in class next to the face blind kid. Face blind kid went out to the bathroom. lookalike and I swapped seats and exterior clothes (jacket, watch etc). Hilarity ensues.

The author calls her face-blindness “mild” and “not as severe”; I wonder what severe face-blindness entails?? How do you recognize less than the author?

I have a small bit of difficulty with faces that my ex-wife made me aware of. Since then, if I don’t recognize someone I may say, “Sorry, I’m bit bad at faces,” and this seems to go over well. I also sometimes say this to cut short conversations about “who my kids look like.”

Is there a good test for this I could take (preferably online)? I suspect I have a mild case and would like an objective test.

"Famouse Faces" at https://www.testmybrain.org and http://facememory.psy.uwa.edu.au/ are both good.

I don't think the first test is very good. I gave it to someone who I know is good at recognising people in real life, but who is not American, has no interest in celebrities, and also never watches films, and they scored badly (3, 20% centile). The second (Australian) test seems better, but, interestingly, the person just referred to didn't do very well in it. I wonder if recognising static images of faces is a significantly different task from recognising people in real life, or even from silent video, when you can see the face in action, as it were.

(There's the bizarre phenomenon, which people other than me have reported, how some people seem to consistently resemble photos of themselves, while others don't so much: they're almost a different person in photos. I think this phenomenon may also have to do with the face in action, but I'm just speculating wildly.)

People with prosopagnosia tend to develop compensation strategies that rely on attributes other than face. Hairstyle, body proportions, style of dress, posture, gait, mannerisms, voice, etc.. Under favorable conditions they (we? I scored 2) can be very good at recognizing people. That's why the test removes everything other than the face itself.

> There's the bizarre phenomenon, which people other than me have reported, how some people seem to consistently resemble photos of themselves, while others don't so much: they're almost a different person in photos.

I'm also just speculating wildly, but this might have something to do with (monoscopic) photography removing depth cues, which is also a factor in the phenomenon of "the camera adds ten pounds". Different lighting and some approaches to makeup and clothing can exaggerate or diminish this effect.

As someone with prosopagnosia, I definitely rely on cues like hair. (It works until someone gets a haircut or changes their facial hair.)

There used to be a great face blindness test online where it first showed you a bunch of full pictures of heads to memorize, then for the quiz it showed cutouts of just the face. I had no idea that I was relying on all these non-face features until they were dramatically removed for that test. (Which I bombed.)

Cool. I scored 97% on the second one, and 14 on the first one.

I did cheat a little bit on the first one by looking up their names on IMDB, because I can usually better remember which movie they were in and what role they played, than the name of the actor.

For the first one, marking an answer correct even if you don't know the person's name is explicitly the correct way to grade it. IMDB isn't ideal because it's so photo-heavy, but if you don't recognize the names you're going to have to look them up somewhere.

Wow. I scored 34% on the second one, i.e. no better than random guessing. The last part that added the random noise to the faces didn't make a difference, since I already couldn't do worse at the task.

I have to admit though that a few of the model faces were a bit featureless and hard to remember, so I mostly got those right by eliminating the other two faces in each group of three, because the wrong faces usually had prominent, memorable features.

The random noise made it harder, but if you squint and move your head around while looking at it, you can remove a lot of noise, it's a nice little "analog" trick for situations like that.

But 34%.. Do you think you suffer from prosopagnosia? Or was there something with the test that made it extra hard for you?

> Do you think you suffer from prosopagnosia?

I do.

I once watched Up in the Air and had to ask at the end which one was George Clooney. (In my defense, I had previously seen him in Syriana, where he had a beard. Hair and facial hair are the crutches I tend to use to recognize people.) Needless to say, on the Famous Faces test I had trouble with anyone less memorable than, say, Barack Obama.

Same here, I knew exactly who they were, but had to look up most names :|

I would simply guess that that's two different skills, and very few people are great at both, so I don't feel bad about it. :-)

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