Sorry, Do I Know You?

29 May

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!

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To test your facial recognition abilities, click here. To find out more about research into face blindness, click here.


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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.

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8 Responses to “Sorry, Do I Know You?”

  1. Jack Flacco 29/05/2013 at 17:43 #

    I read about Brad’s condition. It’s quite frightening, really. To know you suffer from the same thing makes me wonder how you cope beyond the regular routine. I wouldn’t know what I’d do, although I have a friend who’s partially deaf and she copes by doing what you described: smiling. If in doubt, smile. This is what always works she says to me. But whenever she’s asked a question, she finds it hard to know what to do. She’ll ask to repeat the question, but how far does that go before people become annoyed? Man, I can only say good luck with that. I can’t imagine not recognizing my wife or my kids for that matter.

    • cmdrysdale 29/05/2013 at 18:36 #

      I think because I’ve had it from birth, I don’t really know any different so I don’t know what it’s like to be able to recognise people from their faces. And as they say, you can’t miss what you never had. I think it’s a lot worse for people who get it after a stroke or a head injury and who then know what they’ve lost.

      The coping mechanisms I tend to use are context, hairstyles and clothing. This means if I know someone from work where she always dresses in overalls and has her hair tied back, I’m fine if I see here there, but if I meet her in a different context (such as out socially), I’ll have no chance. Worse, I might mistake them to someone else and say the wrong thing. I’ve done that a few times, like the time I asked someone how her husband was doing about an hour after she’d got through telling me they’d got divorced because he’d run off with a younger woman. I thought she was someone else who I knew at the same meeting – all she’d done was take her jacket off in between our first and second meeting!

      The smile and nod option you mention is always a good last resort – and I use that a lot, and my girlfriend as learned to recognise the look on my face when I quite clearly have no idea who I’m talking to, and help out when she can with a quick whispered name in my ear.

  2. FindingStrengthToStandAgain 19/06/2013 at 19:14 #

    I thought your view was interesting on why you think you recognize people you do not know. It makes complete sense. For me, I have always thought that mistaken familiarity was due to the hope I finally recognized people in my life.

    • cmdrysdale 19/06/2013 at 23:33 #

      I’m glad you found this interesting, and that it makes sense (most of my friends have trouble understandng how I see the world). I’ve often felt the joy of finally recognising someone only to find out that they simply have the same haircut as the person I thought they were, and I’ve yet again got it wrong. As a result, I tend to be a lot more cautious and will only claim to know someone once I’m really sure (i.e. they, or someone else, has confirmed it). Other than that, it’s smile and nod just in case. It’s not ideal, but at least it minimises the chances of me offending anyone or saying something odd to a complete stranger! I do wonder how many people I don’t know that I freak out with this strategy.

      • FindingStrengthToStandAgain 21/06/2013 at 23:26 #

        Sadly, I would guess this number of people would be higher than you or I would imagine.

      • cmdrysdale 21/06/2013 at 23:46 #

        You’re probably right. However, I have found that more and more people seem to at least be aware that prosopagnosia exists these days, which at least helps.

  3. Sue 10/09/2013 at 10:51 #

    Oh dear. I struggle with this. I have just called a colleague a wrong name – it happens all the time. I once even mistook someone who I had recently been on a ski lesson with with my cousin (despite the fact that I was in a different country from my cousin). The skier clearly thought I was engaging in some kid of weird joke – it made me feel sick when I realised. I have noticed that I do notice people’s gait. So, I can recall how they walk but not how they look. It’s really unsettling when I think about it…

    • cmdrysdale 10/09/2013 at 16:32 #

      I do that sort of thing a lot with work people. I’ve learned not to use colleagues names until I’m certain I know who they are because of something they said. Although I ended up in a bit of a pickle recently when I met someone at on the way home from conference who clearly knew me but I had absolutely no idea who they were because it was out of context and they weren’t wearing their name badge! It made for a rather awkward 30 minute bus ride as we sat and chatted while tried desperately not to give away the fact I had no clue who they were. I’m sure came across as a bit rude, but better that than getting it completely wrong and really insulting someone!

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