Medicine

What It's Like To Have Prosopagnosia, Or Face Blindness

If you saw the same cashier at the grocery store today as you did yesterday, would you know? What about your boss? Would you recognize them if you saw them outside of the office? What about your mother? Prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness, could make every one of these situations impossible. People with the condition have either some trouble or a total inability to recognize faces—and you could have symptoms without even realizing it.

Lost In A Forest Of Faces

Imagine you recently visited a pine forest. If you later saw a picture of a pine tree, would you know whether it was a tree you had encountered before? Most of us wouldn't, since all trees of a given species look basically the same. This is a common way to describe the experience of prosopagnosia. People with this condition generally can't tell one face from another; for them, walking through a crowd of people is like walking through a forest.

Prosopagnosia happens on a spectrum, with some people only having trouble differentiating between the faces of strangers and others having a complete inability to know whether what they see is a face or an inanimate object. Some people It has been tricky for researchers to pin down exactly what portion of the population experiences face blindness, but it's estimated at 2 percent, or roughly millions of people. Many of these people may not even know they have it.

Related: Are You A Super-Recognizer?

Could You Have It?

The majority of face-blindness cases are what's known as acquired prosopagnosia, since it forms from brain damage due to things like head trauma, stroke, or neurodegenerative disease. The rest of cases are so-called developmental prosopagnosia, and in these cases the condition occurred before the person developed normal facial recognition abilities, the way most people do by the time they're teenagers. It could be, however, that acquired prosopagnosia only makes up the majority of cases because it's very easy to tell a difference between the way you recognized faces before and after brain damage. Developmental prosopagnosia could be more prevalent than we think because many who have it don't 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 it could be easy to assume everyone shares in their struggle.

Of course, everyone has trouble recognizing people from time to time. Prosopagnosia is more severe than that. According to faceblind.org, "One of the telltale signs of prosopagnosia is great reliance on non-facial information such as hair, gait, clothing, voice, and other information. Prosopagnosics also sometimes have difficulty imagining the facial appearance of acquaintances. One of the most common complaints of prosopagnosics is that they have trouble following the plot of television shows and movies, because they cannot keep track of the identity of the characters." You can take a test to see if you have prosopagnosia here.

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Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About Faces

The People Who Can't See Faces

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Prosopagnosia is a condition in which people can't cognitively see faces. 00:22

  2. The fusiform gyrus handles visual word recognition, color processing and face and body recognition. 02:28

  3. People with face blindness tend have trouble interpreting facial expressions as well. 05:00

How Do Our Brains Recognize Faces?

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Why You See Faces Everywhere

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Seeing faces in things that have no faces is an example of apophenia. 00:10

  2. Apophenia is defined as "an unmotivated seeing of connections, and specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness. 00:23

  3. Detecting faces, whether animal or human, help us and our ancestors assess potential threats. 01:17

Written by Curiosity Staff June 14, 2016