What’s the first physical thing you notice about someone when you meet them for the first time? Is it whether they’re male or female? Maybe it’s their eye colour or freckles. Their unusually-shaped nose, even. Whatever it may be, the combination of these unique traits is what we use to recognise the important people in our life, as well as all the others we know and encounter in between.
So imagine what it would be like if you couldn’t use characteristics like these to distinguish between your mum or your best friend, your old high school teacher or your postman. That’s exactly what sufferers of face blindness – also known by its fancy name, ‘prosopagnosia’ – must endure for most, if not all, of their life (people usually get it from birth).
The inability to recognise people by their face alone affects approximately two in one hundred people in the UK. Sufferers may fail to judge a person’s age, gender or emotional expression from their face or spot similarities and differences between two different faces.
Unsurprisingly, this can have a profound impact on the behaviour and even mental health of sufferers. Although many cope by using alternative strategies such as a person’s distinctive voice, hairstyle or way of walking as identifiers, for others this doesn’t always work, especially if their acquaintance has recently changed their appearance. What are your options when even secondary clues become impossible to spot?
For some, the condition will cause them to deliberately avoid social interactions altogether, which can lead to relationship and career problems, bouts of depression and, in extreme cases, the development of social anxiety disorder. The latter may prevent a person from even leaving their house for overwhelming fear of social situations and embarrassment.
And to make matters worse, it isn’t only other people that someone with face blindness might not recognise. Objects, including places, cars and animals, also present difficulties, particularly for navigation and memory – even their own face staring back at them in the mirror could be an alien sight.
However, for anyone who’s an avid watcher of Arrested Development, you might find yourself questioning the legitimacy or even existence of face blindness as it’s played out through the eccentric and often ridiculous character of Marky Bark. On the show, Marky’s affliction with face blindness, exaggerated to the point it seems at times almost unbelievable, doesn’t appear to cause him half the inconvenience or trauma that it can in reality. Though viewers are made aware of the condition and its characteristics, does the show’s overtly comedic context promote public health misconceptions while hindering an educational message?
It is important to establish that face blindness really does exist and is much less a quirky trait than a cognitive impairment with potentially serious social and emotional consequences. But what causes it exactly? Although it’s true that it can develop following brain damage (from a particularly nasty knock to the head, for example), it has become increasingly clear that ‘developmental prosopagnosia,’ where people simply don’t develop facial recognition, is the most common cause. In fact, as many as one in fifty people might have it, equating to a potential one and a half million sufferers in the UK.
What’s more, many sufferers have reported to a parent or sibling experiencing the same kinds of difficulties, so it’s likely that genetics play a role in the occurrence of face blindness among families.
With all the trouble that face blindness can cause at the expense of someone’s livelihood and even health, it might be reassuring to point out that there are ways to determine whether you might suffer from the condition.
Often, doctors will use computer-based tests that require people to memorise and identify a set of faces, including those of celebrities. Most recently in 2015, a partnership between several doctors and universities in London coined a new questionnaire that can aid both a person’s diagnosis of face blindness as well as a measurement of its severity.
The inevitable bad news, however, is that there isn’t currently a way to treat face blindness directly other than to help sufferers improve their facial recognition with training and rehabilitation programmes.
There’s still hope for the future though – the prosopagnosia research currently taking place at Bournemouth University has also hinted towards using pharmaceuticals to temporarily intervene with face blindness, to some success. Once these techniques have been developed further, a successful cure or therapy might not be too far off.
In the meantime though, if you’re able to recognise a familiar face, why not consider taking the time to appreciate the people close to you (especially their mug) just that little bit more? Don’t take face perception for granted – you’re luckier than you think…