Friday, August 21, 2009

Do I know you? You look vaguely familiar... (face-blindness, or prosopagnosia)

Recently I was doing some contract work in an office where I've occasionally spent time over the past year or so. I was coding up a bit of HTML/CSS when a co-worker paused at my desk and asked me how it was going. We had a bit of a chat, and he went on his way. It wasn't until the following day when I overheard him in conversation with my project-manager, that I realised he isn't a co-worker at all. He's the client.

When we'd been talking at my desk, I had recognised his face enough to know that we'd interacted before, and that he was a member of the set of "people who spend time in this office" - but I had no more knowledge about him than that. I did not realise, for example, that on at least two occasions over the last couple of months we'd had hour-long meetings where I sat opposite him at a small table, presented my designs to him and discussed the project in detail.

And if I had seen him "out of context" - in the street, for example, or at a party - I would most likely not have recognised him at all - or at best I might have had a vague inkling that I knew him, but would be completely unable to place him ("I think I know you but I don't know how I know you"). And as for attaching a name to that face that I'm not sure if I recognise or not? Not a chance.

As the publicist for The Gathering from 1998-2000 I became somewhat well-known within the dance community (being pushed around The Domain in a shopping trolley while being interviewed by Havoc and Newsboy will do that for you!) - and as a member of The Gathering's organising crew I met hundreds of dance party people over the years.

The problem for me came when I was expected to recognise and remember the names of any of those people I'd met only once or twice (or even a few times), or anyone who I hadn't seen for a while.

As 'the face of The Gathering' I was recognised in the street fairly regularly, and occasionally I would be accosted by someone who would throw their arms around me and cry "thank you thank you - you changed my life!" (in which case I'd think "oh this is probably a Gatherer and I probably haven't met them before").

But sometimes they'd stop me in the street to have a conversation about The Gathering, and I would have absolutely no clue who they were or if I ought to know who they were.

Have I met this person before? Did I crew with them at TheG? Are they a DJ I really ought to know? Or have they recognised me from the telly and feel that they know me a little, which is why they're talking to me like they know me, even though I don't know them??? How confusing. How embarrassing on occasion, when I didn't recognise someone that I really should have been able to recognise.

It appears that I need to meet and interact with someone at least three or four times before I can get at least some of their physical characteristics fixed in my head enough to recognise them. Even if I spend an entire day interacting with you at a conference, or a party, or a meeting of some kind, if I pass you on the street the following day, I probably won't know that I know you - or I may have a vague idea that you are familiar, but I will have no idea of the context in which we've met.

Parties are very stressful for me, because unless they are filled with people I know very well, I have a hard time working out who is who and whether or not we've been introduced. The short intro provided by the host "this is so-and-so, we work together - webweaver is a friend of mine" is too short a time for me to get anything much about your appearance fixed in my head - let alone your name. I'm so busy trying to smile and shake hands and say hello-nice-to-meet-you that once I move on to meet the next person, virtually everything about your physical appearance is gone from my mind.

If we end up chatting at the party later on, it is a virtual certainty that I will not remember your name, and very likely that I will not actually know whether or not our host has introduced us already, or if this is the first time I've laid eyes on you.

I use a bunch of different tricks to try and get a fix on people I've recently met. Your clothes, the way you speak, the way you move or walk, the things we talk about (I can recall conversations word for word, even days after they have taken place), your hair, your body shape and size. But not really your face, unless you have strongly unique or extreme facial features of some kind.

Imagine that we're at a costume party and I interact with five new people. At the end of the party, everyone changes back into street clothes and we gather round to say our farewells. Because your clothes are now different, I probably won't have any idea which five new people out of the 20 at the party I have actually spoken to. My main initial clue about who you are - your unique costume - is gone, and I'm lost.

I remember one time looking at two photographs with a group of friends. In both photos was a guy we knew, with a girl that we didn't know. Or was it two different girls? As my friends discussed whether or not he was pictured with the same girl in both photos, I stared and stared at the faces, trying to figure it out. Yes, both pictures showed a girl with long brown hair, but they were taken at different times, she was wearing different clothes, and her face was shown at a different angle in each photo. I realised that I had absolutely no idea if it was the same girl or not. I was completely unable to identify common characteristics of the two faces, in order to decide if it was one girl, or two.

If you recognise me and stop me in the street for a chat, unless I know you well, I may not know who you are. I say if you stop me because it's highly unlikely that I will stop you. This is because it takes me much longer than most people to even vaguely recognise someone I don't know well. 'Normal' people apparently recognise each other within a second or so. It takes me ten times that amount of time - if at all. By which time we're fifty yards apart heading in opposite directions, and the moment is past.

So assuming you've stopped me, and we're chatting away on the street corner, I will be feverishly trying to find you in my mental database, while at the same time trying to carry on a conversation with you. "Who is this person? Do they look familiar? Where do I know them from? And what the heck is their name?" (yeah good luck with that last one!)

I'll try to direct the conversation in order to glean clues about who you are:

"Gosh it's been a while... what have you been up to?" (frantically hoping that it has been a while and that I didn't actually get introduced to you just yesterday).

"Where are you working these days?" (frantically hoping you're not one of my new co-workers with whom I've been sharing an office space for the past three days).

"Crikey my memory's going," (I lie) "when did we last see each other?" (praying as I say it that this is an appropriate question to ask within the context that you know about how we know each other, and about which I have have no clue as yet).

Even if I get the answers I need, and am able to locate you in my mental database, I am extremely unlikely to use your name (unless you say it to me first), and certainly you will almost never hear me say "Hi [your name]" if I bump into you in the street, because it will take me quite a while to connect up your name with your face, even if I know you quite well.

If I've just spent the last five minutes trying to figure out who you are, even if I'm 99% sure I've worked it out and I'm lucky enough to have some recollection of your name, I'm so unsure of my abilities that I probably won't risk saying your name in case I've got it wrong.

"Oh we must do coffee sometime soon and catch up properly," you say. And I say "cool, that would be great - do you have a business card?"

I can't say "Hey let's exchange phone numbers" because if I haven't recalled your name I won't have any way of identifying you in my phonebook! If I see your name written down on your card I can try to attach that word shape to something about your appearance and maybe I'll remember you next time - and I'll also have a name I can stick in my phone memory next to your number.

I dread bumping into someone I only know vaguely if I'm with someone else - because I cannot introduce you to each other. By the time I've figured out who you are (and assuming a miracle has occurred and I've been able to recall your name as well), the moment is long past when I should have introduced you to my friend, so I just have to keep going and hope that you introduce yourselves to each other, or continue the conversation knowing that both of you must think I'm awfully rude not bothering to do any introductions. God how embarrassing.

Afterwards I can apologise to my friend and confess why I didn't introduce them to you, but you will have gone on your way wondering why I left my friend out of our conversation, and you may well be thinking that I really am rather socially awkward, weird and impolite.

This lack of ability to recognise faces or put them into some kind of context of "how I know you" actually has a name, and an official-sounding one, at that. It's called prosopagnosia, or "face-blindness" and until quite recently it was thought to be extremely rare and very little research had been done about it.

Then in 2004 researchers used fMRI scans to monitor brain activity in subjects being asked to recognise famous faces, where one face (eg Marilyn Monroe) was morphed into another (eg Margaret Thatcher). Crazy combination, I know!

From How the brain recognises a face:

The brain goes through three separate stages to decide if it recognises a face, scientists claim.

A team from University College London says the first assesses a face's physical aspects.

The second decides if it is known or unknown. If it is a recognisable face, the third part puts a name to it.

To be specific:
It was found that the inferior occipital gyri at the back of the brain were found to be particularly sensitive to slight physical changes, such as wrinkles, in the faces.

The right fusiform gyrus (RFG), appeared to be involved in making a more general appraisal of the face and compares it to the brain's database of stored memories to see if it is someone familiar.

The third activated region, the anterior temporal cortex (ATC), is believed to store facts about people and is thought to be an essential part of the identifying process.

This area was more active when volunteers knew the celebrities well.

The researchers say that if even one of these steps breaks down - as can happen in some forms of dementia - people can lose their ability to identify others.

Knowing how the process works means it may be possible to intervene when the it breaks down, as in dementia.

It may also help people with prosopagnosia or 'face-blindness' - a rare condition where the brain is unable to process faces normally and people may not even be able to recognise their partner's face, or their own image in the mirror.

Having done a serious amount of reading over the past couple of days about this strange phenomenon (which is not so strange to me!) it seems as though I have trouble with the second and third steps in the process, especially if I don't know someone very well, or haven't seen them in a while.

I'd be the absolute last person you'd want as a witness to a bank robbery. If I had to do an identification line-up thingy I'd be completely hopeless - especially if they picked people who looked remotely similar to the suspect.

This can extend to people I know very well, if they change their appearance in some way. If you walk past me on the street and you're wearing sunglasses or a big floppy hat, don't expect me to say "hi" because I really won't know if it's you under there or not.

A more extreme example is my experience with male friends who have shaved off their beards or other facial hair.

Years ago, my friend John (who was my workmate and best friend at the time) decided to go clean-shaven, instead of the rather substantial beard and moustache he usually sported. So he turns up at my house and I literally have no idea who he is. Remember this guy was my best friend - I hung out with him almost every day. So I'm standing there at the door wondering who the hell this guy is, and he opens his mouth and starts speaking, and I practically fall to the floor in shock.

It is the most bizarre experience, to hear a completely familiar voice coming out of the face of someone who is suddenly completely unfamiliar to you. It took me at least a week to get used to John's new face and to come to terms with the disconnect between voice and visage.

Can you picture someone's face in your mind? I can't. I can't even picture my own face. When I think about a person I know, I can visualise their body shape. I can see a fairly strong image of their hair, especially if it's striking (Lou's long red hair, Ben's greying bouncy hair for example). I can picture their stance, how they walk and move (Ben again, waving his arms around as he talks). The type of clothes (or even individual items of clothing) they wear. I can conjure up an echo of their voice in my head without too much difficulty.

But the face? I can recall nothing but the very vaguest, blurry outline - as if someone drew a picture of the person's face with coloured chalks, and then rubbed a cloth across the drawing, obliterating virtually all the detail. The only exception to this is if someone has a striking or unusual facial feature that I can latch on to. Bright blue eyes with dark eyelashes for example, or a scar, or a big nose. Apart from that, your faces are all a bunch of amorphous blobs in my mind's eye. How sad is that?

I think one of my problems with recognising faces, especially when I've only met someone a couple of times, is that I tend to watch people's mouths very closely when they're speaking, and I rarely look someone in the eye for any length of time - if at all. Do I? If you're reading this and you know me - do I make eye contact less than most people do? I'm pretty sure that's the case, but as I have nothing to compare myself with, I'm not entirely sure.

Anyway - as far as I'm aware I don't look people in the eyes much, and I know I tend to focus on the mouth. I think this may be partly because I find it difficult to follow a conversation sometimes, especially if we're in a noisy, crowded room where lots of other people are also talking. I think I may actually be lip-reading to some extent in this kind of environment, hence the need to watch your lips closely when you speak to me.

Because of my narrow visual focus on only one part of your face, I don't give myself much of a chance to note what the rest of your face looks like. I won't know what colour your eyes are, for example, or whether you have freckles, a turned-up nose or apple cheeks. I'll probably remember the colour of your hair, and perhaps even your hairstyle (hair is easier, for some reason), but with only a mouth and hair to go by next time I meet you, it's probably not surprising that your overall appearance won't jog my memory into realising that we've met before.

It can also work the other way around. One time I popped in to say hi to my friend who is a video editor, and found him hard at work with someone I didn't know. "Oh hi webweaver," he said, "this is [other visitor's first name]". "Hi there," I said. "You look very familiar... have we met before?" I asked. "I don't think so" she replied.

It wasn't until a few minutes after that, as I watched them working together and discussing the footage they were editing, that I realised why she looked familiar. She was a TV presenter, and I'd just asked her if we knew each other. Aaargh. Embarrassment!

I've also been known to totally embarrass myself by attempting to talk to one acquaintance about stuff I did with a completely different acquaintance - thinking that they are one and the same person. It's true! At least ten years after I first met these two guys I know, I finally copped on to the fact that they were actually two different people, and not the same person at all.

I realise now that there's a range of tricks and techniques I've developed over the years to help me recognise and remember people. Because my face-recognition abilities are so limited, I have compensated by developing my abilities in other ways.

A couple of months ago there was a piece on the news about a guy who had hidden a diamond ring somewhere in Wellington. He was going to leave clues to where it was, so people could try and track it down. If they found it, they could keep it. They interviewed another guy who had decided to try and find the ring, but who didn't want to be identified because he was planning to ask his girlfriend to marry him - and he wanted it to be a surprise. They interviewed him with his back to the camera, but they didn't disguise his voice.

No more than two words were out of his mouth before I leapt to attention from my place on the sofa and exclaimed "oh my God! That's [name of my friend]!" Heck - I even came up with his name instantly, and I don't even know him that well.

So it appears I'm pretty good at voice recognition. Certainly when I lived in England (land of a thousand regional accents) I could identify any accent at twenty paces - and if it was a Midlands accent (where I lived) I could probably tell you which small town they were from without too much trouble.

If you call me up on the phone and you don't identify yourself, I'll know who you are pretty much instantly anyway, which is good. Could be confusing otherwise! I assume that most people can do the recognise-the-voice-on-the-phone thing - because otherwise everyone would always identify themselves, wouldn't they?

But this whole recognising my friend on the telly by his voice surprised me - because of the number of times I've seen people interviewed (on crime shows or whatever) who have asked not to be identified. So they have the person's face in darkness, sometimes there's a light behind them so you're not just looking at a dark screen, which means if they turn their head slightly you might see a bit of their profile - but their voices are not disguised at all.

If I was a mob boss and I heard one of my minions confessing all on the telly and dropping me in it - I'd know instantly who it was by their voice alone, and I'd probably send one of the boys round to have them dealt to.

...which made me think... am I better at voice recognition than the average bear, and is this an ability I've developed to compensate for my face-blindness? Or are there dozens of whistle-blowers being offed all over the place after spilling the beans in darkness on telly because everyone can do it as well as me - and it's only the TV producers who don't realise that fact?

This is the thing with face-blindness if you've had it all your life - you have no 'normal' baseline to which you can compare your abilities (or lack of them). So for years and years you struggle on, getting embarrassed because you can't remember who people are, and inadvertently offending acquaintances who think you should recognise them when you don't - and the whole time you have no idea that everyone else can do this stuff ten times better and faster than you can.

One time my workmates and I had a bit of a problem with a guy and we had to call the police. We were standing on the street talking to the cops when I looked across the road and saw the guy (he'd run away initially, but goodness knows why, he'd returned to the scene a few minutes later.) "That's him!" I cried, "I recognise his hat!"

Silly boy. If he'd only removed his beanie I wouldn't have had a clue that it was the same person. It was the hat that gave it away, because one of my coping strategies is to focus on people's clothes when I'm talking to them - and your attire will stick in my head far more quickly and effectively than your face will.

Most of us with face-blindness find uniforms extremely difficult to deal with, because when everyone is wearing similar outfits, we are denied one of the important pieces of data we use to identify people we know - the type of clothes we know they like to wear.

At my secondary school all the girls wore uniforms - the 'uniformity' of which was pretty tightly controlled. I used to play a game with myself when I was walking up the steep hill from the bus stop to school in the morning. Which of my friends can I see walking up the hill ahead of me?

I was easily able to recognise someone from behind, who was wearing a standard school uniform, and from quite a long way away (a couple of hundred metres or more) just by the way they walked. I assumed everyone could do this - but perhaps I'm more skilled at this than most people - because I have developed this ability to compensate for my face-blindness.

Interestingly enough, although my ability to do steps two and three of face-recogition is somewhat impaired, I think I'm pretty good at step one - recognising subtle differences and slight physical changes, such as wrinkles, in the faces of those I know well.

If you've had your hair cut, for example, I'll notice it straight away, and I'll probably comment on it. If I haven't seen you in a while, but you're someone whose face is very familiar to me, I'll notice if you're looking tired, or a bit older than when I last saw you, or if you've lost or gained weight.

Some people develop prosopagnosia as a result of a stroke or brain injury - and because these people suddenly lose the ability to recognise faces - and they're probably already under a doctor's care -- this form of face-blindness has been more well-researched than the form displayed by those of us who were born with it.

The mildness or severity of a individual's face-blindness varies along a continuum, in much the same way as Autism or Aspergers does. My face-blindness is by no means severe (I would not mistake my wife for a hat, for example), and I can pretty much guarantee I will always be able to recognise my own face, and that of my close friends and family, but it's still somewhat of a handicap in many social and work situations.

You might be wondering if I have trouble recognising or remembering other things, and I have to say no - I'm pretty good at most things, it's really only faces I have trouble with.

Like a lot of people with prosopagnosia, I like to sort and categorise things, perhaps because it helps me with the categorising I need to do in order to try and remember who someone is. I can still recognise and name pretty much any tree in the English countryside (even in winter with no leaves on the tree I can recognise it by its shape alone), or any flower growing in an English hedgerow - because I learned these for fun when out for walks with my family as a kid - and I have never forgotten them.

The categorisation that face-blind people do is important when trying to identify someone, because it narrows down the vast range of characteristics we need to remember. If I want to identify you in a crowd, I'll be thinking of ways in which I can do that - you have long brown hair, your skin is pale, your ears stick out a bit and you like to wear T-shirts and jeans, for example. That narrows down the number of people I have to focus on in order to find you.

If you stop me in the street and I'm not sure who you are, part of my inner process is to identify which of my "type" categories you fall into as I desperately try to figure out how I know you, and what your name might be. By categorising you in some way, I reduce the number of entries I have to sift through in my mental database before I find someone who fits your description.

It also explains why it's so much harder for me to recognise you if I meet you "out of context" - that is, outside the place where I normally interact with you. If I have a context for you, I can eliminate everyone in my database who isn't part of that context, or that mental "set". Without the context, there's a much larger number of sets to sort through in my mind.

For face-blind people, I think pattern recognition and characterisation is so important because we need to use these types of techniques far more frequently than most people do. So, for example, my visual memory for word shapes verges on the photographic, by which I mean that an incorrectly-spelled word will jump off the page at me when I'm reading, without me even having to look for it. If you ask me how to spell a word, I'll be able to visualise it in my head and spell it out to you faster than you can write it down, and I'm almost never wrong. Was I born with this ability, or has it developed as a result of my need to identify patterns and characteristics in people? I don't know.

I mentioned earlier that I have a good memory for conversations and can repeat back to you, word for word, a conversation we had weeks ago - especially if it was important, heated, or emotionally charged in some way. I'm also a pretty good person to have on your pub quiz team, because I have a pretty good memory for all kinds of useless and random facts on a fairly wide range of subjects. Lord knows how I know half the stuff I know, or why it sticks in my mind, but it does. Again, I don't know if these skills are as a result of me compensating for my face-blindness, or if I had them all along.

I think perhaps the most frustrating thing for me is the fairly dramatic contrast between my intellectual and memory-based abilities in almost every area of my life - and my complete lack of ability to remember your face and your name (a skill which most people take for granted).

I can remember whole soliloquies from Shakespeare, and poems by Catullus in the original Latin that I learned mumbletymumble years ago at school - and I can often answer more than half the 5-minute quiz questions in the paper without even raising a sweat - so why the heck can't I remember this person's name I only met five minutes ago - and why is it so hard for me to recognise a face when everyone else can do this without even trying?

In the office where I mistook the client for a co-worker I did an unprecedented thing soon after that happened. I described my disability to my project manager and to a new co-worker he introduced me to, with whom I was going to be working.

"I'm not very good at recognising faces, so it will take me a few days of working with you before I get your face fixed in my head. When I come in tomorrow I may not be able to work out which is you, or if you come and talk to me and I don't notice which desk you were sitting at, I may not realise that you are the person I worked with today. And it's definitely going to take me a few days to remember your name. So please bear with me - I'll get there eventually."

They both thought this was highly amusing - especially when I described my confusion with our client - but as far as I could tell they didn't judge me for it - they just gave me a bit of help over the next few days, reminding me who my new co-worker was and re-introducing us at meetings.

It was pretty cool actually, and it sure beats looking like an idiot because you don't recognise someone and no-one knows why. I think it might have even improved my ability to recognise and remember him more quickly - perhaps because by being honest I had taken the pressure off myself, and no longer had to worry about whether or not I knew which one he was.

So if you know me - or you know someone like me - and we bump into each other in the street, you can help me out enormously by reminding me of who you are and how we know each other. You can also introduce yourself to my friend if I don't do it straight away.

And in return I think I might start doing what I occasionally already do - which is to 'fess up right away and explain that "I think I know you, but I'm afraid I don't know how I know you". It certainly beats the embarrassment of trying to fake my way through a conversation with someone I can't identify - and now that I have a name for this strange condition, somehow it doesn't seem quite so threatening as it used to.

I'm just a bit face-blind, that's all.

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stephen said...

I had heard of face-blindness before, but this is hands-down the best description I have ever read. I feel as though I really get it now.

webweaver said...

Thank you Stephen - I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

I certainly had fun writing it - it was actually really cool to think back to different experiences in my life and understand that - yes - I had face-blindness all along and didn't even realise.

Mike said...

Never even heard of it – but I’ve certainly felt like that on occasions! I’m worse when I meet a new group of people and I want to make the right impression and get all the faces linked to the right names. However if two people look vaguely similar it can take me a while longer to sort it out... Great story!

Anonymous said...

When I meet someone, I find it hard to register their appearance. But I get a very fast impression of what's going on with them. I may not be able to remember if the guy I just met had a beard, but I can tell you, for instance, that although he was trying to hide it, he was angry about something. Does it work this way for you?