Category: face blindness

In her book Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate, Cynthia Kim talks about the experience of learning about Asperger’s and seeing how many of the signs were present in her life from an early age, leading to a question: How did nobody notice the signs back then? Asperger’s may not have been defined yet, but she definitely was different from other children her age.

She spent a lot of her time by herself– she felt most content when she could spend hours in her room playing games of Risk and Monopoly against herself, or going on long bike rides around her neighborhood alone.

When I was that age, I was likewise able to entertain myself for hours alone with just a book or a road map or atlas to study. It was hard to shift my attention to something else while I was still exploring it!

Kim writes that another reason she thinks her Asperger’s was harder to spot was an issue that I’ve written about before on this blog: for a number of reasons, boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with Asperger’s than girls are.

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Just a quick post while I continue to work on others…

I’ve been really enjoying attending a young adults Bible study in my area. In addition to Bible study, we have had game nights and other informal gatherings, and it’s given me a chance to work on my social skills. In general, the group is very relaxed, which is a big help to me. We took Myers-Briggs tests, and found that most of us in the group were introverts.

Before a Bible study a few weeks ago, though, I was reminded how faceblindness can be a real obstacle to making friends. I thought I was doing okay at small talk with a young woman; she told me her name and I told her mine. I told her about how one of my daily tasks was watching our three dogs, and trying to get my physics editing done in between letting them in and out. She told me about her two beagles, and said she thought our grouchy old Welsh corgi sounded a bit like them.

It was a nice conversation, and it would ordinarily be something I could refer to the next time I talked to her, but then I walked to the other side of the room to get something to eat. When I walked back to where I was, I realized that not only had I forgotten the name of the woman I had been talking to– I couldn’t even remember which of the women in the room she was! Just moving to a different place was enough to make me lose the context I had been using to identify her.

So… the next time I see her, I might end up having the same conversation over again, because I can’t remember who I already told about my dogs! I think I was focusing so much on listening to her and responding with sentences that make sense (both things I don’t want to neglect, to be sure) that I didn’t remember to come up with some way of identifying her, since I don’t have the automatic face-recognition system that many people have.

I think it explains why making friends at college at more than a superficial level was tricky for me. Oh, well. I think I will eventually learn who people are if I keep attending the group– it will just take me longer than most people! : )

Hi!  It’s been a while since I’ve posted here.  There are some new things going on, though.

Probably the biggest is that I have a new part-time job!  I’m editing articles for an online physics journal.  Like my previous job reviewing English papers, it’s work I can do from home, but unlike it, I find it really interesting rather than stressful, so I have been able to get more work done.

I’m mostly doing copyediting for consistency in things like spelling, punctuation, and style of the reference list.  It definitely helps to have some familiarity with physics so that I can recognize the terminology, but thankfully I don’t need to understand everything the writers are talking about, because it’s really advanced stuff!

My coworkers/bosses have been really patient and helpful with all of the questions I have asked about specific grammar and style rules.  (I always have a lot of questions.)  So it’s not full-time employment yet, but I think it’s a step in the right direction, and I’m thankful for that!

I have also been continuing to try to develop my social skills; there is a local young adults Bible study that I’ve started going to.  It’s frustrating to me how little information I retain from talking to people, but I think I am beginning to remember a few names.

Other things that have kept me busy are watching our energetic dogs and following the crazy football season that’s been going on.

I have often thought about things I’d like to post about on this blog, but sadly most of those things fade from my memory when I don’t have time to write (or more often, the words to put them into).  I’d like to get to writing again, and I have at least one idea of something new to try for the video game posts, but we’ll see about that.  It seems that in order to write more, I need to think less, and the results are not always good if I do that.

Anyway, thanks for visiting, readers!

I was watching this online commercial about how Google pictures its Project Glass working:


If this kind of technology became common, one of the positive effects I could see would be for people who struggle with face blindness.  It wouldn’t be a very big leap to create a way to “label” people with their names.  The names could even follow them around like the labels hovering over characters in video games like Minecraft:

My brothers and I exploring the uncharted seas together. (The name labels are too small to read, but you can see they are there.)


That’s certainly what I would do with it!  It could also help with executive dysfunction by providing a framework for keeping an organized schedule, kind of like how the guy in the commercial uses it as a dayplanner.  I truly believe that the technology of the Internet has been and can be a tremendous help to people with Asperger’s if it’s used wisely.


At the same time, though, I can also see lots of potential drawbacks.  One, of course, is the fact that you have to wear the Star Trek-like headset that might make you look a bit like this:

Did Google make Geordi's VISOR?


Or, at least, like this:

Major Kira tests another Google prototype?


Of more concern is the fact that other people would have the advantage of using this information too.  A salesman could use it and say, “Oh, here comes a guy named Nathan; my records say he just visited a Star Trek site.  I’ll try to sell him my Star Trek DVDs.”  That would be annoying.

Even more likely is that Google could sell ad space, so if I used this as my dayplanner, it would be yet another way to advertise, this time literally right in my face!  The commercial, after all, is not just targeting ukelele-playing boyfriends– it is also catching the notice of businesses like the bookstore, the concert promoter, and the coffee truck, which all get business from the guy in the commercial thanks to Google’s invention.

It’s also interesting to ponder how such a device could affect the way people think.  One commenter on the news article announcing this project said something like “Goodbye spontaneity.”  It’s true– what might seem freeing to people who struggle with organization and socializing could be very restricting to people who are social by nature.

And if you have a guide to help do something for you, it might cause you to stop exercising the muscle (or in this case, mental facility) that allows you to do it yourself.  The idea is a little amusing to me– could reliance on technology like this make everyone think a little more like an Aspie?

CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment about face blindness last night, and I figured I’d share some thoughts about it.

If I could add captions to the movie, that would be fun, but I don’t know how to do that.  So I’ll try writing a running commentary according to the time index of the video.

Part 1:

0:10  It’s been a while since I watched this program.  Goodness, they are being dramatic, with correspondent Lesley Stahl giving her introduction from an endless black void with a creepy picture hovering behind her!

0:45  As you might expect, the report mostly focuses on some of the most extreme examples of face blindness, because… well, that’s more dramatic!  My own face blindness is not as severe as most of the examples they will talk about in this segment.  (Also, while face blindness is often a trait of autism/Asperger’s, many faceblind people are not autistic.)

I have never had trouble recognizing my close family members or myself in a mirror.  And I was able to recognize my high school classmates right away at our reunion. But I’ve spent years with those people where I saw them on a daily basis and spent time getting to know them.  I start to have trouble with people I only see from time to time.

1:20  This is something I’ve always wondered about 60 Minutes.  Do they make sure that the stopwatch is always at the right minute and second based on when the commercial breaks come, or do they fudge things a bit?  It looks like the watch is running about 20 seconds fast here, but I think that’s because they cut the “Tonight on 60 minutes…” part out of the video.  What?  Oh, face blindness. Sorry.

2:00  I have at least some facial recognition ability, because I can recognize most of these celebrities.  And the ones I have trouble with are possibly due to unfamiliarity with the celebrity rather than face blindness.  But this is easier than real life facial recognition, because 1) I already know it’s a celebrity, and 2) the faces don’t move or start to wonder why I’m staring at them.

2:22  This camera shot is a more accurate representation of the task in real life.  All those faces going by– how can I pick out the ones I’ve seen before?  Do other people’s brains really do that automatically?  If so, that’s amazing!

3:20  There’s no “Aha!” moment for me when the faces go from upside-down to rightside-up.  It’s just the same image flipped.  Most people don’t have to turn their heads to read words that are printed upside-down, do they?  It’s the same for me with faces– if I don’t know them upside-down, I won’t know them rightside-up.  But flipping the image seems to cause instant recognition for Lesley Stahl.

4:00  Those poor people… I feel terrible for me too.  (Just kidding.)  : )

4:45  When you don’t automatically recognize faces, you use context to help you keep track of people.  If I understand what Dr. Novotny is describing, she can become familiar with a person as her current patient, but when they step outside into a crowd of people, their context is completely changed.  Now they are just one of many people visiting the hospital.  She might remember that the patient was a young woman with medium brown hair, but now there might be three other people in the room who fit that description, and if she makes an assumption, it could be wrong.

5:08  This is a nightmare scenario for me.  I would have to ask for the coworker’s e-mail address or try to text them, because even if he tells me his name, I will probably not recognize him in a different context.

Whenever I arrange to meet someone, I am usually not looking for a face I recognize.  I am looking for someone who fits the general description of the person I am meeting (age, gender, skin color, hair color, hair style, etc.) and who appears to be looking for me (by making eye contact or smiling when they see me).  Until I am sure who they are, I hedge by pretending to recognize them in a way that is hopefully also plausible as simple friendliness if they turn out to be someone I don’t know.

6:00  This exact thing happened to me with a friend who changed her hairstyle between school quarters.  She no longer had her hair in a ponytail, and that was enough to make me unsure that she was the same person until she greeted me by name!

I don’t experience quite as much dissonance as Jacob Hodes appears to, though.  If I saw a person change their hairstyle in front of me, they wouldn’t “disappear.”  I know they’re the same person because they haven’t gone anywhere.

8:00  The interview with artist Chuck Close is probably my favorite part of the segment.  I think he does a good job of explaining the thought processes a faceblind person uses to identify people, and showing how you can still be good at recognizing people by paying attention to details.  I think I also recognized the picture of Leno by the chin and of Tiger Woods by the lips.  I thought Tom Cruise was Doug Flutie, though.

Until I read about face blindness, I thought this was how everyone recognized faces.

10:00  I can echo what these people are saying.  The idea that most people have a mechanism that instantly and automatically “labels” faces for them seems as weird and unexpected to me as face blindness appears to be to Lesley Stahl.  Half the people I know say they are bad with faces, so I just figured I fit into the same category.  Maybe I do, and it’s a spectrum like autism rather than a sharp divide between “normal” and “not normal” the way the segment makes it appear.

11:05  Thanks, Ms. Stahl.  What a cheery thought!  (sarcasm)

12:00  I haven’t had the experience of not recognizing my own face, but I don’t really need to recognize it very often.  I mean, when I look in a mirror, the person in the mirror is going to be me, right?  Other people stay on my side of the mirror.

Moe by Michael Firman (click to visit webcomic)

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I drive from Danville to Bloomsburg, along the same path the school bus took me for twelve years. The trees crowd in beside the road, and it feels so quiet– I’m amazed at how little traffic there seems to be. I guess I’ve gotten used to Cincinnati. But this definitely still feels like home.

I’m going to the park for my 13-year class reunion. Why 13 years? Because we’d never had a reunion before, and we wanted to have one. I worry a little that I won’t recognize some of my classmates. That could be embarrassing.

But as they arrive one by one, I know them instantly without a doubt! This so rarely happens to me anymore even with people I know well. It really feels nice.

Eight of us were able to make it out of a class of 26. I’d say that’s pretty good, considering how many of us have spread out all over the country and how many are busy with family and job obligations.

I get to meet their spouses and children, and I do my best to remember their names, but it will take me a while. I’m thankful that I’ve had the chance to learn some of them from Facebook.

We talk while the children play on the playground– there are so many stories to tell. I stand in between two conversations, listening to both and smiling. My friends are so very much the same people I knew from school. They’ve been to some amazing places and lived through some tough times, but God has preserved what is good in each of them.

I don’t think I have a lot to add myself. My experience is still mostly as a student. I’m still trying to find a career, still hoping to start a relationship with someone.

I probably seem a lot like I did when we were all in high school. I lagged behind socially then– at a middle school or elementary level– and as a result, I didn’t interact much with my peers. Now, I’m probably up to a college or high school level socially, but I don’t always feel fully a part of the adult world.

When someone asks me what I’m doing currently, I stammer and pause for a bit as I try to answer. A nasty part of me is telling me “You don’t belong here. You don’t have anything to talk about,” but I know that’s not true. We go out for drinks, but I haven’t developed a taste for beer or wine, so I order soda. I hope they don’t think I’m looking down on them by not sharing a drink– it’s such a symbol of friendship.

Before I came to the reunion, I was worried a little about negative thoughts like these, but they are no match for the joy I feel. I sit and listen to all the stories as my friends share– about meeting their husbands and wives, about funny or sad things at work, about pregnancy and childbirth and picking names for children and the unpredictability of two-year-olds. I imagine that my parents had conversations like this about me when I was little. I hear how God has blessed each family and prepared them for the things He brings into their lives. Everyone’s story is different, but also the same.

I realize that I have grown in thirteen years. When I was a senior in high school, I was afraid to drive a car. Today I made two trips by myself, and I enjoyed them. Even though social interaction is tiring, I am seeking it rather than avoiding it– planning my weekend around it and learning how to get enough rest in between so that I can be fully present and part of the conversation.

I wonder if my classmates know what a blessing they have been to my life– both those who are there and those who could not come.

At times, others find it hard to believe that I have Asperger’s just from observing me. I think some of this may be due to personality– my strong desire to avoid confrontation has likely kept me from clashing with others.

But there was another big difference in my life, the people around me. In so many of the stories I read online about people with Asperger’s, their years in school are not remembered fondly. Stories of bullying seem almost universal, and in a lot of cases, the best advice people can offer is “Wait until you graduate; it will get better.” I read about people who still deal with the effects of bullying decades later.

I wonder if my classmates know that they are proof that it doesn’t have to be that way– that kindness can have just as much of a positive impact on a life. None of us knew about Asperger’s, but anyone could see that I was different in some ways, lagging behind in others. But I wasn’t given grief for it. I was just given friendliness, time, and a safe place to grow.

I hope they know.

Harold Abrahams (#30, played by Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (#14, played by Ian Charleson)

Face blindness can sometimes make watching a movie an interesting puzzle.  Usually, it’s easier to keep track of characters in a movie than it is people in real life– there are usually only a few major characters in a movie, and filmmakers usually try to give the audience a lot of clues about who’s who, knowing that the whole audience is usually being introduced to these characters for the first time.

I usually find that if I make an effort to pay attention to the characters as they are introduced, I don’t have any trouble keeping up with the story.  A scene here or there may confuse me, but 1) often I’m able to piece things together by continuing to watch, and 2) sometimes the filmmakers intend to confuse or unsettle the audience with ambiguity, and that too becomes clear if you just keep watching.

But with some movies, face blindness can give me a lot of trouble.  I was reminded of this when I recently watched 1981 Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire, which tells the story of runners who competed for Great Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games.

I saw the movie for the first time several years ago when we rented it.  It was one of my mother’s favorite movies, and at the end, she started talking about how it did such an effective job of presenting the stories of two athletes alongside each other in a way that caused you to think about the similarities and differences between them.

But I hadn’t picked up on any of that.  In fact, I had a hard time seeing the point of the story, because I had not been able to tell that the movie’s structure focused on the lives of two men in particular, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell.

Harold Abrahams was an English Jew who competed in the face of racial and religious prejudice.  His deans at Cambridge refused to support or encourage him, and Abrahams used the desire to prove them wrong as his motivation to become the best runner in the world.  At the same time, though, the prospect of losing a race filled Abrahams with fear.

Eric Liddell was a devout Christian from Scotland who planned to enter the ministry as a missionary, as his parents had before him.  When he began devoting a lot of time to training for competition in the Olympics, his sister worried that he was placing his enjoyment of running (an earthly thing) ahead of doing God’s will.  Surely winning footraces could not be as glorifying to God as being a missionary, could it?

One of the interesting things about the filmmakers’ choice to focus on these two runners is the fact that their paths don’t cross very many times during the story.  Abrahams and Liddell only compete against each other in the same race once, and that is not in the Olympics.  Once they both arrive in Paris, they each have their own concerns to deal with and don’t interact much with each other.  So it’s mostly an artistic choice to tell their stories in parallel, by cutting from one to the other.
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Overall, I think it has been great being back in school again.  It gives me a chance to interact with people near my own age and work on my social skills, an area in which I’m often very uncertain.  But from time to time, I’m reminded that my mind just doesn’t seem to work the same way as other people’s.

On the morning of my final presentation in Photoshop class, I was walking to my third-floor classroom, and as I entered the stairwell, I held the door open for a young woman, and she smiled at me.

I thought it was nice of her to do that, as not many people smile at strangers early in the morning.  As I walked up the stairs a few steps ahead of her, I expected her to leave the stairwell at the second floor.  (I often find myself keeping track of where other people are going and sometimes hoping they will go another direction, as I feel more self-conscious if I know someone else can see me.)

But the woman kept following me up to the top floor of the building, and she was still following me down the hall toward my classroom!

As I neared the classroom, I began to suspect what turned out to be the case.  She had been one of my classmates in that class this whole quarter!  Her smile had been one of recognition, but embarrassingly, I wasn’t able to recognize her outside of the classroom.  It was only after she sat down in her usual seat two chairs away from me that I was able to remember that I had seen her before.    😐

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.