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Facing Prosopagnosia

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In the past few years, prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness”, has received a fair amount of attention from researchers, as well as from the popular press.

My first exposure to the topic was Joshua Davis’s article entitled “Face Blind“, which appeared in Wired in November 2006. I was intrigued, especially since I’d long recognized that I had difficulty recognizing people by face. Perhaps the person who has done most to raise awareness of prosopagnosia is neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has prosopagnosia himself.

The Wired article inspired me to explore the subject. I discovered faceblind.org and found quizzes that tested for prosopagnosia. On one of these, where random guessing would have earned a score of 50%, I scored in the low 60s. My initial reaction was that my score wasn’t so bad — it was a hard test! Then my wife took the test and scored in the high 90s. That’s when I realized that I didn’t just have difficulty recognizing faces — I was almost incapable of it.

Faced with this realization, I had to decide whether to share it with my friends and family, let alone with my broader set of social and professional acquaintances. It was tempting not to — after all, why tell the world that I wasn’t “normal”?

But eventually I realized that it would be better for people around me to know than not know. The biggest downside to prosopagnosia isn’t the momentary embarrassment of not recognizing someone — it’s the content fear of offending people who may think you don’t value them enough to recognize or acknowledge them.

Hence, I spread the word through my colleagues, ensuring that most of the people with whom I interacted regularly would find out without any big announcements. Some of my co-workers were surprised, since I do a pretty good job of recognizing people using non-facial clues — height, hair, clothing, where I run into them, etc. I have a great memory, and I have no problems with voice recognition. In other words, I have lots of work-arounds.

Fortunately, I work with a lot of people who understand machine learning — which is a great framework for understanding how I recognize people. I simply work with a different set of features than most people, but fortunately I achieve sufficient precision and recall to pass as “normal” most of the time.

Anyway, if you didn’t already know that I had prosopagnosia, welcome to the inner circle! And if you ever felt that I walked by you without recognizing or acknowledging you, please accept my belated apology.

Finally, if you’re curious to learn more about prosopagnosia, I encourage you to watch this 60 Minutes show about it.

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