I woke up this morning next to a woman I didn’t recognise. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds, I knew exactly who she was, I just didn’t recognise her. Also, this happens to me pretty much every day. The woman in question is my girlfriend and we’ve lived together for more than a decade yet still I can’t recognise her. Actually, that’s not quite true, I recognise her voice, her hair, her body, the way she walks, I just don’t recognise her face. And it’s not only her, it’s pretty much everyone I’ve ever met. I even struggle to recognise my own face if I unexpectedly catch a glimpse of it in a mirror. I know this sounds odd, and it is, but it’s just the way I am.
The official name for this is prosopagnosia. There’s a common name too: face blindness. Until last week, few had ever heard of this condition; then in an interview with Esquire magazine Brad Pitt mentioned he has trouble recognising people and wants to get himself tested for face blindess. Suddenly, it seems like the whole world’s talking about it. This increased awareness can, I suspect, only be a good thing.
While I’ve almost certainly had face blindness all my life, it’s something I didn’t realise until quite recently. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed as a specific condition. I’ve always known I wasn’t good at recognising people by their faces, it’s just I didn’t realise this as unusual. I’d always been mildly surprised when people recognised me when I’d only met them once or twice or even when people could recognise actors in films, but it never crossed my mind that they were doing something different than I was.
About 1% of people have what I have and many, like me, won’t even have realised they have it until they stumble across a reference to it and go ‘A-ha, that’s me!’. However, looking back I can see it’s shaped a large amount of who I am. I take a lot of photos (I’ve even had my fair share published commercially) but rarely do I include people in them. This makes sense because if I did, I’d just find a bunch of people I didn’t recognise staring back at me whenever I looked at them. Where possible, I avoid social situations where I’m likely to meet people I’ve met before but who I don’t know well enough to recognise by non-facial cues and when I have no choice but to go to such events, I worry about offending people by not recognising them. I think it even influences the clothes I wear: I dress very distinctively (a lot of people know me as ‘the man in black’ – it’s not original but it’s apt) as if I feel this is a way I can make sure I’m recognisable to others.
So what’s it like living with a condition that means you don’t recognise other people’s faces? Well there’s two parts to it. The first is that I don’t recognise people when I should. If I see people I know out of context or if I’ve only met them once or twice or if they’ve change their hairstyle or grown facial hair, I’ll fail realise who they are (for this reason, I really hate Movember!). People always seem hurt when they see the blank look on my face and have to explain to me who they are. Then they see a smile of recognition spread across my face and all is forgiven. I think a lot of people assume that I’ve just forgotten them, but in reality I struggle to recognise pretty much everyone, including myself. When I first grew a beard, it took me about two years to recognise myself in a mirror. I was fine if I knew I was looking in one, but if I caught sight of myself unexpectedly I’d find myself thinking ‘Who the **** is that?’ before realising it must be me.
The flip side of the coin is that I’ll think I recognise people who I don’t know. Since I found out I have this condition, I’ve worked out why this is. It’s usually because they have a similar hairstyle (they’re not as unique as you might think they are and I’ve grown to realise that almost everyone has several ‘hair doubles’ wandering around in their local area). This means I frequently smile, or worse, at complete strangers only to find myself mistaken and cringingly embarrassed by what I’ve just done.
So where does this leave me as a writer? Well, firstly, I think it explains a lot about why I primarily write in the post-apocalyptic genres. I find myself in a world of faceless zombies every time I step out my front door. By this I don’t mean that they act like zombies but rather that all I see is a mass of people who all look the same to me, and lack the basic facial features that make them human (well, to be fair, they don’t lack them, I just don’t really see them). I also need prompts from other people to include descriptions of facial features in my writing but this is exactly why I get other people to read over my work and why I work with a professional editor when I’m working on books.
I know my own limitations and for the most part I can deal with them. Once I explain things to people, most accept what I say, although there’s still one or two who know me that think I’m making it up or that I just not don’t hard enough. My biggest problems have come when I’ve had brushes with the criminal justice system – not as a suspect, I hasten to add, but as a witness. The entire system is set up around the ability to recognise people by their faces. This is how victims identify their attackers, how police issue announcements of who they’re looking for and how things work when they get to court (just think of the question ‘Do you see that person in the court today?’). How can you work within such a system when you struggle to even recognise yourself? This is a theme that I’ve specifically explored in my writing and you can find a short story based around this here.
So, the bottom line is that I’m really bad at recognising people from their faces. This means that if I know you and I fail to say hello to you when we run into each other on the street, don’t be offended: I’m not giving you the cold-shoulder, I’ve just not recognised you. Similarly, if I don’t know you and I say hello to you in an overly-friendly manner, don’t worry I’m not some weirdo – it’s just that you happen to have the same hairstyle as someone I know!
To test your facial recognition abilities, click here. To find out more about research into face blindness, click here.
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.
To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.