Thursday, May 27, 2010

My Experience with Face Recognition Disorder (Prosopagnosia or Face Blindness)

I have difficulty recognizing faces.  It's not something I realized I had difficulty with when I was a child, but looking back on my experiences, it seems that I've had this difficulty all of my life.

When I was a child, I thought I just had trouble remembering names.  This is something that many people say that they have trouble with.  I had never heard of prosopagnosia, so the closest description I could find to what I was experiencing was a problem with remembering names.

But, for me, it was not the names, but the faces.

Since I have trouble recognizing faces, I rely on other clues, like hair color/style and voice.

If people appear similar in other aspects, then it is hard for me to tell them apart.

One of my earliest memories regarding this problem is that in school sometimes teachers would have students pass back graded papers.  I dreaded doing this task, because I had trouble telling some of the students apart.

I tried working in a bagel shop, but that only lasted a couple of days.  I was so busy trying to fulfill the orders, that I forgot to look at the people to remember who ordered what.  This caused some frustrated customers (as well as a frustrated me!)  I'm sure I appeared dumb, but really I was just coping with a difficulty that I wasn't aware I had.

About 4 years ago, I came across information on prosopagnosia (thanks to the marvelous internet) and realized that described my condition accurately!  Since then I have been actively practicing to increase my ability to recognize people and faces.... I am getting better, although I'm not sure whether my ability to recognize faces is actually improving, or whether I'm just getting better at picking up other clues to remember people!

I watch TV shows and movies and try to recognize actors. This used to be an impossible task, but now I am able to do it some of the time.  I think I rely on the sound of their voice as much or more than their face. It's just easier for me.

I still sometimes get lost when watching a movie that has multiple people who look similar, and this can make the plot impossible to follow... A very frustrating thing!

I have been taking piracetam to try to improve some of my cognitive skills. It's an interesting drug (sold as a supplement in the USA).  It works on the brain by somehow increasing or improving neural pathways, or at least that's what it seems to be doing.  It's not a stimulant, but rather a nootropic (a smart drug).  Since it changes neural pathways, it can have some effects on mood (both positive and negative), but that's not the purpose I take it for.

It seems to help me with recognizing people, language skills, and word retrieval.  I had speech and hearing problems as a kid and so I still have some difficulty in that area, and it seems to me that piracetam helps.  If I take it before watching Jeopardy, I can usually get more answers right because it seems that I can think of the answers faster. That all too common "it's on the tip of my tongue" experience goes away.

For more details on face recognition disorder, check out Cecilia's description.


  1. Oh my god, I never knew there was a word for this! I have tried so often to explain it to people, and find myself telling every new person that I meet to please not be offended if I forget who they are next time we meet! I am definitely going to research this more, thanks for the info :-) I completely relate to your issues with movies, and find I prefer weekly series on TV better because I have time to "learn" the characters who are the same each week. And army movies? Good luck!

  2. I agree... Any movie or situation where people wear the same cloths or have the same hair cut is super difficult and frustrating! Because of not being able to easily recognize faces, there are just some things I can't do - like work in retail or be in the army! I don't think I could become a regular classroom teacher either, because it would take too long to recognize all 20 or 30 students... But I could tutor kids one on one, no problem!

    Despite all of my attempts to improve this area in my life, I still have continuing trouble. Recently someone in my neighborhood talked to me while I was walking. They wanted to walk with me. So I quickly memorized their house number and name, but it turns out that there are a couple of people living there of the same age/gender/hair color and I don't know which one spoke to me, and won't recognize them if I see them out of context :( Since the conversation was so brief I don't have a good memory of their voice or other clues, plus since they approached me I was taken by surprise and didn't have time to think through a good strategy...

    I'm glad that my post helped you! It sure helped me when I found out that there is a name for this! I actually cried.....


  3. I know this is an old post, but I was just looking up facial recognition and bipolar and got here - yep, can I ever relate! Movies, people in uniform (or camo during hunting), new coworkers, work in retail... curious, is there any connection of this to bipolar disorder? Thanks ---- Deborah

    1. I recently read a book "An Unquiet Mind" in which the author refers to spatial orientation problems and facial recognition difficulties in people with bipolar disorder. She gives no details and I'm anxious to learn more as well! Please post if you learn any more about the connection!

    2. Oh my gosh! I'm doing the same thing. I read the exact same passage, put the book down, and reached for my iPad. It's still next to me at page 197 where it is mentioned.

      I can relate to this problem too. I'm on the bipolar spectrum. I work at a HS as a librarian. This can be quite problematic in interacting with the students. One time a boy came in and asked me if he could have a pass so he could come in during a study hall. I had interacted multiple times with him and was so embarrassed that I didn't know his name. (I was particularly frustrated about this since I normally can remember minority students faces more easily since our school is predominantly white. This young man was an African American student) I had thought his name was Walter, but he had corrected me once and told me it was Adrien. I had the pass in front of me with my pen poised...hesitating. I said very cautiously, "Is it...Adrien?" He nodded and I breathed a sigh of relief. At that point my full time aide looked over and joined the conversation. Here's how it went:

      Aide: "Really? I could have sworn you were Walter!"
      Adrien: "No...Walter is about an inch shorter than I am."
      Aide: "Well, how am I supposed to tell you two apart unless you are standing right next to each other?"
      At this point, I started to catch on...
      Me: "What? Wait! You're twins????!"

      This incident turned out to be rather amusing and we all got a laugh out of it. These two boys had been in and out of the library all year independently of each other and I never knew they weren't the same person. It's not always funny though. I have a lot of difficulty remembering faces. I was a new hire this year which made it even more challenging. I find it very difficult to tell students apart who look anything remotely similar to one another. I have problems even if they come into the library every single day. I find girls with long blond hair very difficult to distinguish, or two girls who both had dark hair and glasses. It can be very embarrassing.

    3. Alyssa, try taking this test on face recognition in this page. If you struggle with bipolar, mention it to the researchers in the comments.

  4. Hi Deborah,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment! I hadn't thought about any possible connection between prosopagnosia and bipolar disorder. Your comment made me look around a little, and I did find this study but it's not very large nor very conclusive:


    1. Interesting, but I don't seem to have trouble recognizing emotions. (At least I don't think I do....ill have to think more on that) my problem is what I described in my other comment.

  5. I'm coming in very late to this discussion too. I also can relate. Interestingly for me is that I never seemed to have trouble with prosopagnosia until after I had my first bipolar episode in my early 20s. (I am now 50) This has been problematic at times at work. I am a librarian in a high school. I've always found it fairly easy to learn the names of the minority students. (I work in a predominantly white community) I had no trouble with the brother and sister whose parents immigrated from India. The Asian-American and African-American students posed no trouble for me either. It's all of those white kids! The girls with the long blond straight hair. The boys with brown hair and glasses. The entire soccer team dyed their hair orange this past fall. That was like have a huge population of brand new students for me. I have learned the tricks of the trade such as glancing at a name at the top of a notebook. Luckily when they sign out books, the students type in their student ID #s and up pops their name on my computer screen. I've also relied heavily on listening to them converse among themselves. When they call each other by name, I will take note of it and try to use that name with the student ("Have a nice weekend, Ben." "Do you need a pass to class, Sierra?")

    I also figured it out when I read "An Unquiet Mind" as Alyssa did.