Mind & Body

How Good Are You With Faces? Take the Face Memory Test to Find Out

Some people are bad with names, others with dates. It's always annoying to forget a birthday or an anniversary or the name of your next-door neighbor. But do you ever feel like you forget faces? We're not talking about an inability to tell Nick Jonas from Joe Jonas — we're talking about an inability to tell your best friend's face from a stranger's.

For some people, that's an everyday occurrence. Those people have face blindness, or prosopagnosia, an impairment in facial recognition. People with face blindness can't tell old friends from new ones, but they may also have a hard time recognizing family members, their spouse, and sometimes even themselves.

What It's Like to Be Face-Blind

It's estimated that 1 in 50 people have prosopagnosia, though it exists on a spectrum, with some people experiencing more serious impairment than others. People with the condition usually rely on factors other than faces to get their bearings — they might use hair, clothes, glasses, and voice quality to recognize loved ones, acquaintances, and even actors in movies. As you might imagine, this can pose a problem when a friend gets new glasses or a film character changes wardrobe for a new scene.

To recognize a face, many different interconnected parts of the brain have to work together. Prosopagnosia results when some part of that network goes awry. The type of recognition problem a person has depends on the particular region or regions of the brain that malfunction. For instance, some people with face blindness have a difficult time noticing differences between similar faces. Others can notice physical differences in the moment, but can't remember what they are when it comes to recognizing the same person again.

Two Types of Prosopagnosia

Neurologists have sorted prosopagnosia into two possible types. Acquired prosopagnosia involves brain damage from head trauma, stroke, or a degenerative disease. If the damage affects the face-processing network, that person will lose the ability to recognize faces. Developmental prosopagnosia occurs when certain brain mechanisms fail to develop properly from birth. It's likely to be genetic, as this type of prosopagnosia does seem to run in families.

Developmental prosopagnosia is the most sinister: It's possible that many who have this form don't even know it. Faces have always been a struggle for them and the rest of the world never really talks about how much they rely on facial recognition, so those with face blindness from birth might assume that everyone shares in their struggle.

Scientists have known about acquired prosopagnosia since the mid-19th century, but developmental prosopagnosia wasn't recognized until 1976. "It took us a lot longer to recognize it," says Brad Duchaine, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, in an interview with Science Friday. "You can imagine if you're an acquired prosopagnosic, well, one day you could recognize people and the next day you couldn't. So it's much more apparent to people."

Right now, there isn't a cure to "face blindness." As the late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks put it in a New Yorker essay about the condition from which he himself suffered, "People with varying degrees of face blindness must rely on their own ingenuity, starting with educating others about their unusual, but not rare condition."

Take the Prospagnosia Test

Since people with developmental prosopagnosia often don't know they have it, scientists developed an open-source test to measure face memory. It's called the Exposure Based Face Memory Test, and you can take it online to measure how well you recognize faces. Scientists designed the test to mimic how we recognize faces in everyday life. They also designed it to be quick — the test takes around 5 minutes or less.

Before you begin test, listen up. Because face blindness deals with recognition and memory, you can only take the test once. If you peek at the faces and then re-take the test, you'll mess with the results. So if you really want to know what your ability to recognize is like, make sure to take it seriously on the first try. Good luck!

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Learn about some of the world's most mysterious perception disorders in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales" by Oliver Sacks. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Kelsey Donk November 1, 2019

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