Saturday, March 17, 2007


I know that I am rather behind on this subject compared to when it was a big subject (around the end of last year). Given the fact that I didn't have a blog back then, I guess I can be forgiven for this though.

I first came across the phenomenom of Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, back when I read an article in Wired about the subject.

Basicly it's the phenomenom of not being able to recognize faces. Not in the sense of not being good at remembering faces, but in the sense of not being able to recognize faces, including those of your own family and yourself.

Until recently it was thought it was only a phenomenom among people who damaged their brain through some kind of accident (the first well know example was apparently a soldier who was hit in the head, and after that was unable to recognize even his own wife), but now scientists have realized that it's much more widespread than that, and that people can suffer from this from birth. Brad Duchaine, a scientist studying this subject, estimates that 2 percent of the population is face blind.

One of the reasons why face blindness has gone undetected for so long, is the fact that people who suffer from it, are not aware how other people percept faces. This is of course not the case for people who get it later in life.
Another reason could also be that people are good at compensating. When I started needing glasses (when I was about 13 or 14), I learned to compensate for the lack of them, by being able to recognize people in the distance by how they moved. Since I stated wearing glasses I've mostly lost that ability again.

A most facinating aspect of prosopagnosia is that it's very specific to faces. People who suffer from it, can recognize (and remember) other things as well as everyone else. This is probably due to the fact that faces are much more complex than other things, and demands more from the brain.
However, based on this abstract, it seems that at least some of the brain is able to recognize the person, yet the end result doesn't reflect this.

The reason for face blindness is probably genetic, since the trait has a inheritance pattern that is consistent with the trait being carried by a single gene.

Some futher reading:
Face Blind - the original Wired article that got me interested in this subject.

Face blindness not just skin deep - CNN article about the subject.

Living in a world without faces - New Scientist podcast.

I’m Strange, You’re A Stranger - a blogpost from a blogger who suffers from prosopagnosia. The post is quite interesting, and also makes it clear that the problem is not only with human faces, but also animal faces.

I was doing some closet-cleaning the other week, and came across my portfolio of projects from when I took Commercial Art classes some years ago. One picture was an assignment: “Abstraction, select a natural object, create an abstract of that object”, cat, done in ink (dip-pen & pot of ink). I remember thinking about cats, and what qualities of the body shape define them as having “cat-ness”, and decided that it was the tail, the angularity of the limb joints, the pointed ears and the whiskers. But as I said, I tend to perceive things primarily by the mass and outline and by specific traits.

Most everyone did animals for that abstraction assignment, although the instructor pointed out that my drawing was the only one showing the animal from the back side, without the eyes. Mine was the only picture without a face! - website of the Prosopagnosia Research Center Harvard University and University College London.

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Anonymous Lauren said...

Ooh, interesting.

I realized right after I got my glasses this year just how heavily I was compensating for my awful vision. I was able to spot my SO from far away by the way he walks (he's really tall and lanky) and I could only pick Ethan out from the crowd after school from a distance because of the pattern on his coat and the hat I knit him.

I can't imagine not being able to recognize faces because I love faces so much (that sounds weird) but it will take me months to remember names.

I remember this doc on TLC or some other channel awhile back on the science of beauty (hosted by John Cleese) that says we have a certain capacity of faces that normal perceptions can remember, and that we are most likely to be able to remember faces that look similar to our own. This was sort of used to explain the "all people of X ethnicity look alike" crap statement, but it was still scientifically backed. I never looked into it any further, but it might make for interesting research.

March 17, 2007 8:04 PM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Back when I was a teenager, I used to train kids in Judo at my dojo - that taught me to remember names, since you some times need to get the attention of the kid fast, before someone gets hurt. Funny thing, since the vast majority of those kids were boys, I am better at remembering male names than female names.
Or I was back then - now I am getting slower and slower at learning names.

I agree about loving faces, though I have a big problem with remembering eye colours for some reason. I couldn't tell you the eye colours of most of my friends, especially not if they are blue or grey. Brown eyes I am better at remembering, but that might be due to the fact that I live in a country where brown eyes are unusual, and because my own eyes are brown.

Regarding the tendency to be able to remember faces similar to our own - I've heard something similar in the past. I think I need to do a little research into that.

March 17, 2007 8:31 PM  
Blogger My Toothbrush is a Death Cracker said...

I have prosopagnosia. If you'd like to talk, let me know. I am happy to answer any questions.

April 10, 2007 5:57 PM  

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