Face blindness

One of the traits that often seems to come along with autism and Asperger’s syndrome is called prosopagnosia or “face blindness.” (When I was taking Biblical Greek at Cedarville, I learned that prosopon means “face,” and most people are familiar with the word “agnostic,” which comes from the Greek for “not knowing.”)

Prosopagnosia refers to an impaired ability to recognize faces. For a long time, it was thought to be very rare, occurring only when people suffered damage to a specific part of the brain. For example, one man suffered a bullet wound to the head and found that he was no longer able to recognize his friends, family, or even his own face in a mirror! A case like that provides evidence that face recognition is tied to a specific part of the brain.

But more recent study has suggested that people can be born with a form of prosopagnosia, usually a milder sort than the man in that example. It’s not known how common it is (figures range from 2.5% to 10%) because you run into the same “spectrum” phenomenon that you see with autism. At some point it’s no longer seen as an impairment of the brain and is just described as “I’m bad with faces.”

Whatever the case, I have known for a long time that I am bad with faces. It’s quite common for me to be greeted by someone who obviously knows me and for me to have no idea who they are. I simply respond enthusiastically, since whatever the case, it’s good to be friendly. People with prosopagnosia sometimes use other clues to recognize people– a person with unusual hair or brightly colored clothes is easier to remember. The only problem is that if the person changes their look, you can’t recognize them anymore.

Sometimes a person may be recognizable because of their gait or mannerisms in an almost imperceptible sense that may seem as mysterious to others as the ability to recognize faces seems to a person with prosopagnosia. I’ve read a story about an autistic woman seeing a coworker and asking her “What’s wrong?” when no one else in the office was aware she was having a bad day. The reason was that everyone else was looking at her face, and she was doing a good job of hiding her feelings. But the autistic woman noticed that her coworker had untidy shoes, something that would never be the case unless she was upset.

I’ve seen some presentations attempting to show what prosopagnosia is like by showing photos of people with blurry faces, but I don’t think it’s like that at all. People’s faces don’t look blurry; it’s just a difference in the brain’s ability to recognize and interpret them. The brain fills in a lot of blanks for us without our realizing it. Not long ago, I was in class and caught a glimpse of the student sitting next to me out of the corner of my eye, and for a moment, I saw her as one of my classmates from years ago at Cedarville. I quickly realized that she was not the same person, and when I actually turned to look at her, I saw that there wasn’t much resemblance between the two women at all save for hair color and both sometimes wearing navy blue. I suppose my brain had been “guessing” based on the few pieces of information it had available, and for a brief moment, I saw a person who wasn’t there! Strange, huh?

Does anyone else out there experience “face blindness”? It’s not a trait that is exclusive to autistics, though it seems to be more common for those of us on the spectrum.


  1. My memory is a gift of mine, but I have experienced “face blindness” during times of high stress and grief. I didn’t recognize the man who was my best friend through much of elementary school and Jr. High at Sarah’s visitation until I saw his mother, and I didn’t recognize several old friends of the family, either. The memory of the lapse in memory is still very troubling to me.

  2. I believe I have “name blindness.” I recognize faces far more quickly than I can remember names. I forget names of people I really should know. Sometimes it’s quite embarassing.

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