The New Yorker has a fabulous article this week about face blindness, which is a condition that I’ve suffered from for years but only recently figured out. Technically it’s called prosopagnosia, and it’s the inability to recognize faces, even when sight is normal. Mine isn’t as severe as the man in the article, who sometimes can’t recognize his own assistant, but I definitely have huge issues with people I haven’t seen SEVERAL times in rapid succession.
And if someone is out of context, I blank them. Dating can be a challenge, especially on second or third dates with guys of average height who are wearing suits in a dark restaurant. I’ve developed strategies to cope: I’ll always be early, and text from the bar while pretending to be immersed in my iPhone Sudoku application so he’s forced to tap me on the shoulder. Though once I did blank a guy I’d supposedly had sex with, so it’s not a perfect system! What’s even weirder is that I CAN recognize celebrities: Because, like artist Chuck Close (who is also face blind and says he draws portraits of his family so that he can memorize their features), I can identify people much easier from a flat surface, so photos and magazines are no problem.
In addition to people thinking I’m a) aloof or b) a space cadet, a town like LA poses other challenges because I have to use cues like raised eyebrows and smiles to figure out if I’m supposed to know a stranger. Here, EVERYONE is superficially friendly and smiles at attractive women, so I get a lot of ‘false positives’, i.e. men pretending to be know me–and I go right along with it. Two of my male friends have come clean and admitted that our first meeting happened because I actually believed the old ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ chestnut.
Still, I think that face blindness (and my general horrible sense of direction) has brought me other advantages. I don’t have any proof, but I believe that my hearing and ability to read facial expression has gotten much better partially to compensate. It’s also brought me a new respect for how much we don’t know about the human brain.
Research suggests that this condition, in varying forms, could affect up to around 2% of the population. Still, I hope that face blindness doesn’t become the new Attention Defecit Disorder, with everyone claiming to have it. My male friends are already using it as an excuse when they can’t remember the name of a colleague or girl they dated, so that they get sympathy instead of looking totally insensitive!