Face Blindness [en]

[fr] Un épisode de Radiolab qui parle de "face blindness", littéralement "être aveugle aux visages". J'ai un peu de ça (je ne reconnais pas les gens, mais je me souviens d'eux immédiatement quand ils me donnent leur nom). Episode intéressant à écouter.

I wrote some time ago about being bad with faces. I remember people, I just have trouble with faces. I’ve been paying more attention to this recently, and realized that I actually do “recognize” people — I know that I know them — but cannot “place” them or “identify” them based on their face alone.

This morning I listened to the Radiolab podcast “Strangers in the Mirror“, about face blindness (I love Radiolab).

Oliver Sacks, the famous neuroscientist and author, can’t recognize faces. Neither can Chuck Close, the great artist known for his enormous paintings of … that’s right, faces.

Oliver and Chuck–both born with the condition known as Face Blindness–have spent their lives decoding who is saying hello to them. You can sit down with either man, talk to him for an hour, and if he sees you again just fifteen minutes later, he will have no idea who you are. (Unless you have a very squeaky voice or happen to be wearing the same odd purple hat.)

Go and listen to it.

Like everything, face blindness is not all-or-nothing. I guess I have some degree of it (not as bad as Chuck or Oliver, though). My strategy is to tell people upfront. I’m also very good with names, so that helps compensate. I find myself using some of the strategies they talk about: looking for some distinctive feature in the face, making a mental note of eye colour or eyebrow shape, teeth. Some detail I can hang onto.

I’ve realized that I can in fact “recognize” or place people based on their faces, but it takes me a lot of time and energy and concentration to do so. Sometimes hours or days after I’ve seen the person. I’ll bump into somebody at the supermarket, I know I know the person, we say hi, but I have no clue who the person is. I’ll keep thinking about it, try and visualise the person (face, voice, movement, expressions) and see what context appears in my mind.

When watching movies, I’m often crap at differentiating actors that look similar. “Is this somebody we already know, or is it a new character?” Or if I see an actor in another movie/series, it can take me a long time to be certain I’ve recognized them. For example, Lisa Edelstein (who plays Dr. Cuddy in House) was playing the role of a doctor (!) in an episode of Without a Trace that I was watching a week or two ago. It took me a good 10-15 minutes to be sure this character was not the same as the in-house FBI psychiatrist (also a woman roughly the same age with long dark hair), another 10-15 to be certain I’d seen her before and realize she was Cuddy.

So, is my “problem” in the face blindness range or is it in the “link the face with the person” one? I wonder if there are any tests available for this kind of thing. I’m curious.

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