As some of you will know, I suffer from mild facial aphasia, also known as partial prosopagnosia. Since tango people are often curious about it when I mention it, I thought I’d write a brief primer …
How the brain handles face-recognition
There’s a part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus which plays a large role in colour and pattern recognition. Within that is an area known as the fusiform face area (FFA), which has specifically evolved to specialise in face recognition. (Insert disclaimers here about the the current state of brain science involving less certainty and more complexity, but this is a user’s guide to meeting me, not a scientific paper …)
The FFA does background processing of all the differences seen in faces, from subtle tones of colour to shapes of cheekbones.
With total facial aphasia, the FFA doesn’t do its job at all. People who have this literally aren’t able to recognise their own spouse after 30 years of marriage. Partial facial aphasia isn’t that bad, thankfully. It isn’t impossible for me to recognise faces, it’s just very much harder than it is for other people.
Think of two people you know who look kind of vaguely similar. Not to the point where you would ever confuse them, but superficially, if you were to describe them to someone, they have some general features in common.
You can easily tell them apart because your brain is quietly and automatically processing literally hundreds of points of differentiation. My brain doesn’t do that. Instead it identifies maybe a dozen points of differentiation, and those somewhat fuzzily. So if those dozen points are the things their appearances have in common, it’s very hard for me to tell them apart.
Here’s a good way to understand it
Imagine you’re not a car person (this may or may not require imagination on your part). Someone shows you a car. All you see is a mildly sporty-looking red five-door hatchback.
Days or weeks later, they ask you to identify that car in a car-park. Was it the one on the left or the right?
If you’re shrugging right now, then you understand.
To a car person, it’s obvious. I mean, one’s a Mazda, one’s a Kia. The badges tell you that. The grilles are different. One has front fog lights. There are loads of clues, to a car person. To a non car person, both are mildly sporty-looking red five-door hatchbacks. That’s what it’s like for me with faces.
What does all this mean in practice?
I can learn to recognise faces, but it takes time. I have to piece together a set of clues from the limited patterns my brain can recognise, then when I see a face I have to consciously run though those clues to try to come up with an identity. Like you might not notice the grille or the badge, but you train yourself to remember that the one with the triangular fog light enclosure is the Kia.
Typically, I have to meet someone around half a dozen times within a reasonably compact time period to be able to successfully reach the point where I can reliably identify them.
How can you help?
Please re-introduce yourself to me the first few times we meet! I know it seems strange, but a “Hey Ben, it’s Sarah” is something I really appreciate. When in doubt, it does no harm to drop your name in there!
Before I was diagnosed, I was embarrassed about my inability to recognise people. Now I’m not; I just tell people when I meet them. But it is still awkward, as the natural assumption when someone doesn’t recognise us is that we’re not interesting to them. So as strange as it might feel to remind me of your name, it works better for both of us – so please do!