Tag Archives: Prosopagnosia

What Do Halloween, Movember, Christmas Parties And Selfies Have In Common?

10 Nov

This time of year seems packed full of events which cause me all sorts of problems, and all of them have the same thing in common: they mean I struggle to recognise anyone. You see, unlike most people, I don’t recognise people by their faces. Instead, I use all sorts of other cues, like hairstyles, facial hair, how they stand or walk, the way they usually dress and the place I usually see them in. This means that when people start dressing up in costumes, or growing moustaches for charity, or putting up their hair and donning their Sunday best for the annual Christmas party, many of those cues I rely on to recognise them suddenly disappear, and I’m left standing amongst strangers, even though I may have known the people concerned for years.

When I bump into someone I usually see in jeans and t-shirts in a suit or cocktail dress, I can be talking to them for a good five or ten minutes before it finally dawns on me who they must be. Even then, I still don’t recognise them, and I’m not infrequently completely wrong, and that can be very awkward, especially when I end up saying the wrong thing to the wrong person because I’d mistaken them for someone else (I once asked after a colleague’s husband only to given a cold stare as I was told in no uncertain words, ‘He’s still shacked up with his graduate student!’ – I’d thought she was someone else completely, and if I’d recognised her I wouldn’t have raised what was such a touchy, and scandalous, issue).

Now at this point I should explain something. I’m not as crazy as this can make me sound. Rather, I have a condition called Prosopagnosia. This is something that, as far as I know, I was born with, and that I didn’t even know I had until I started writing my first novel. It’s strange to suddenly find out in your forties that your brain doesn’t actually work the same way as everyone else’s, and that something that you never knew was even possible, everyone else does in a split second without even thinking about it. You see, Prosopagnosia is also known as face blindness, and it means that in my brain, the part which others use to recognise the faces of people they’ve previously met in an instant, even if it’s years later, just doesn’t function the way it should. It’s not that I can’t see faces, or judge whether someone is good-looking or not (I get asked that one a lot), it’s just that the moment someone turns away, I’ll have little or no recollection of even the basics of what they look like. And it’s not just a matter of me not paying enough attention, I can stare at their face for minutes (now that can freak people out!), desperately trying to commit it to memory only for it to vanish the moment they’re gone.

This coming week, my abilities will be tested and found wanting yet again when I teach my annual class at my local university. I’ll have fourteen students in the small seminar room I use and I’ll have to do some pretty fancy manoeuvring to make sure that I don’t end up calling anyone by the wrong name. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to try to minimise the chance of this, like getting them all to introduce themselves to each other at the start as I quickly scribble down who is sitting where. The only trouble is that students have a tendency to change places, and I can hardly force them not to (they are grad students after all, and they probably wouldn’t appreciate being treated like first graders). This means I’m having to constantly update my diagram as they trade seats after every break. This is fine if I notice, but if they do it when I’m out of the room, I’ll have no chance. It doesn’t help that over the course of the several days I’ll be teaching them, they’ll change their clothes, or suddenly decide to wear their hair differently, making a difficult problem so much worse.

Of course, to some extent, I can get away with it by simply not referring to any of them by name, but that won’t stop the next problem I’ll have. This is the annual departmental Christmas party which will be held in a few weeks time. Those same students who I’ll be teaching next week will be there, mixed in amongst the faculty, research fellows and PhD students, some of whom I’ll have taught in previous years, and I won’t have a hope of recognising any of them, even though one of them is my own brother. I know this sounds extreme, but, then again, I struggle to recognise my own face in a mirror or a photograph, and when I close my eyes, I cannot summon up any sort of an image of what my face looks like beyond a vague blur.

This is where my dislike of selfies comes in. Selfies, almost by their definition, exclude all the elements I use to recognise people as they are usually little more than a face with nothing else in shot. Worse, most are shot from a high angle looking down, an angle I will almost certainly never have seen someone at before, and that means I’ll have little chance of working out who it is I’m looking at. To me, selfies, are pretty much meaningless shots of complete strangers, no matter how well I know the person involved and even if I’m told who it is that took it.

Of course, there are plus sides. When I write, I tend to be really good at describing how people are standing, or moving around, they way they play with their hair when they’re nervous or the little mannerisms that make them them. This is because, to me, it is this, rather than their faces, that makes people individuals. I do need an editor to remind me to put in at least some facial descriptions every now and then, but the other details really help to make the characters come alive within the readers head.

This is not to say that I don’t sometimes wish that I was better at being able to recognise people from their faces alone, just like everyone else, because there are times when I do, but as I’ve never known what it’s like to be able to do this, I can’t really miss it. It must be worse for people who develop face blindness because of an illness or accident (which can happen), because they’ll know they can no longer do something that they used to be able to. For me, it’s just normal (well, normal for me at any rate).

So, if you happen to bump into me at some special occasion over the next few weeks, and I seem to ignore you, ask yourself is it because I’ve forgotten you? Or that I’m blanking you? Or that I’m simply being rude? Or it is, and this is much more likely, because you’re wearing a fancy dress costume? Or you’re all dressed up for a good night out? Or that you’ve suddenly decided to sprout a moustache for the month?

Of course, the chances are that if you smile at me and talk to me as if we’ve known each other for years, I’ll smile back and shake your hand, and say, ‘It’s nice to see you’. This I’ve learn is a perfectly neutral response that you can say to anyone even if you don’t know whether you know them or not. Say ‘It’s nice to meet you’ to someone you’ve already been introduced to or, worse, know quite well, and they’ll feel slighted that you’ve forgotten them. Greet a stranger that you’ve never met before like an old friend, and they’ll think you’re crazy. Or that you’re after something. But say ‘It’s nice to see you’ and the old friend will be quite happy thinking you mean it’s nice to see them again. The complete stranger will be happy to because they’ll think you’re just pleased to make a new friend. It’s not a perfect solution, but at least it means I can get through most social functions without accidentally insulting too many people.

It is, however, easier just to avoid such situations in the first place, and maybe that explains why I only teach one class a year (and a small one at that – I’d have no chance in a class of 30, or 60, or 100), and maybe that’s why I only go to social functions filled with lots of people if I really can’t avoid them. It certainly explains why I don’t grow a moustache for Movember and why, unlike what seems like everyone else on the planet, I’ve never taken a selfie in my entire life. After all, what would be the point of taking a selfie when there’s a good chance that I wouldn’t even be able to recognise myself in it?

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.

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!


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.

Getting Away With It – A Short Detective Story

15 May

A PDF of this story can be downloaded from here.

Constable Wainwright glanced up as door of the small office he shared with five others burst open. This was the moment he’d been dreading ever since he’d finished his report and sent it upstairs to CID. He could tell from the way Detective Inspector Ross was gripping the paperwork that he wasn’t pleased and he couldn’t blame him.

The DI threw the file across the desk towards the younger man. ‘What the hell’s this?’

‘It’s my report on the witness statements from yesterday’s shooting, sir.’

‘And you think it’s complete?’

‘It’s as complete as I could get it, sir.’ Constable Wainwright had just a touch of defiance in his voice.

‘So remind me,’ the DI’s brow furrowed as he pursed him lips and crossed his arms, possibly in response to the younger man’s tone, ‘How many witnesses were there?’

The constable shifted his gaze downwards, knowing what was coming next. ‘Eleven.’

DI Ross put his hands on the desk and lent forward. ‘And not one of them saw the guy that did it?’

Constable Wainwright could almost feel his superior’s breath on his face. ‘They all saw him.’

‘And when you say they all saw him …’

‘They were in the room when the shooting happened, sir.’

The DI straightened up again. ‘And was it a big room?’

‘No, sir. Just your standard church hall.’

‘Were any of them drunk or high or anything?’

‘No, sir.’

‘It wasn’t dark in there was it? I mean they weren’t watching a film or something like that were they?’

‘No, they had the lights on, sir.’

‘So they all saw the man walk in, shoot one of them dead and then walk out again?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And the shooter wasn’t wearing a mask or a disguise?’

‘No, sir.’

‘How close were the witnesses?’

Constable Wainwright picked up his notebook and flicked through it. ‘Between six and ten feet.’

The DI took a couple of large steps backwards. ‘About this far then?’

Constable Wainwright bit his lip nervously before replying. ‘Yes, sir. That would be about right.’

So …’ The DI paced around the room for a minute before returning to the constable’s desk. He stood there, hands on hips, looming over the younger man. ‘So why the hell haven’t you done a photofit?’

This was the bit the constable hadn’t been looking forward to explaining to those who ranked above him. ‘Well … that’s where things get … errr … what you might call complicated, sir.’

The DI raised his eyebrows and moved his head ever so slightly forward: other than that he remained motionless. Constable Wainwright took this as a cue to continue. ‘All the witnesses agree the gunman was about five eleven tall and had short dark hair with no beard or anything like that. He was dressed in a black leather jacket, the kind that bikers used to wear, black denim jeans and Doc Martins. He held the weapon in his right hand; a semi-automatic by the sounds of it. There’s some disagreement as to what exactly he said but it was either “You know who I am, don’t you?” or “You know why I’m here, don’t you?” or possibly both. There was an accent, possibly south London; almost certainly fake …’

‘Yes. Yes. I know all that from your report,’ DI Ross looked like he was about to explode, ‘But what did he actually look like?’

‘Well …’ The constable rubbed the back of he neck nervously and flicked through his notebook again. ‘Nine of them said he definitely wasn’t black.’ He felt the urge to glance up at the DI to see if he could guess what his superior was thinking but he did his best to resist . ‘Four of them thought he was probably white but three others thought he could have been Arabic or Asian or …’ He turned the page. ‘Or maybe South American.’

The DI leaned on the desk again, and stared at the constable. ‘Thought he was probably white? What sort of a description’s that? Surely you either know or you don’t.’

Wainwright took a deep breath. ‘They were a bit vague on the age too.’

DI Ross slumped into the chair opposite the younger man and massaged his forehead with one hand as if trying to ease a headache. ‘Just how vague are we talking about here?’

‘Definitely an adult but he could have been anything between twenty and sixty.’

‘And none of them could tell you what he looked like?’

‘No, sir.’

The DI considered this for a moment. ‘That’s got to be bullshit! It happened right in front of them. How can they not know what the gunman looked like? Either one of them did it and the others are covering it up or it was someone from outside the group and they’re not giving us the description for some reason. One way or another at least some of them must be in on it.’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘And why would that be?’

‘It’s because of the reason they were there. They were having a meeting.’

DI Ross dropped his head downwards as he folded one arm across his chest and pinched the bridge of his nose with the thumb and fore finger of his other hand. ‘They’re not twelve-steppers of some kind, are they?’

‘No, nothing like that.’ Like the DI, Constable Wainwright knew the code of anonymity for groups like AA always made their lives more complicated than they needed to be when it came to investigating crimes. ‘It’s more like a self-help group.’

‘For what?’

‘For a condition they all have. It’s called …’ The constable consulted his notebook, ‘Prosopagnosia.’

The DI leaned forward. ‘Proso what?’

‘Prosopagnosia, sir. They’ve all got it pretty bad apparently; that’s why they have the meetings. It helps them deal with it.’

‘And what’s the hell’s this prosopagnosia thing when it’s at home?’

‘It’s also called face blindness, sir.’

‘So they’re blind?’

‘They’re not blind. They can see perfectly well; it’s just that they don’t recognise or remember faces.’

‘They what?’

‘They don’t do faces. And it means they’re not great at things like age and race too so it explains why they were so vague with those as well.’

The DI lent back and ran his hands through his hair before linking his fingers behind his head. ‘So basically you’re saying that even though eleven people saw exactly what happened, none of them can tell us what the shooter looked like because of this face blindness thing?’

‘That’s pretty much what it boils down to, sir.’

‘Would any of them be able to recognise the gunman if they saw him again?’

‘I asked. They were all pretty certain they wouldn’t, sir. The twelve of them have been meeting as a group for the last three years and they don’t even recognise each other unless they’re wearing name badges.’

The DI stood up and paced around the room again. ‘So we’ve got eleven eye witnesses and even if we somehow get lucky and find the guy who did it, none of them would be able to pick him out of a line up?’

‘That’s the gist of it, sir.’

‘This is ridiculous!’ The DI returned to the desk. ‘And you’re sure they’re not pulling your leg or anything like that?’

‘I’m pretty sure, sir.’


‘Because the one I spoke to when I first arrived didn’t recognise me when I took his statement later and all I’d done was take my hat off. Two of the others managed to confuse me with Constable Hussan.’

A surprised look appeared on the DI’s face. ‘Hang on, you’re white and he’s Asian isn’t he?’

‘Errr … Middle-eastern, sir. One of them explained it to me. We’ve got the same hair colour and style, and we were both in uniform.’

DI Ross scratched his head. ‘I don’t get it.’

‘Because they don’t recognise faces, they learn to recognise people by other things: hairstyles, the clothes they’re wearing, how they walk, the sound of their voice and so on.’

The DI sat down on the chair again and buried his head in his hands. ‘And almost everything we do to find and convict a bad guy is based around having an accurate description of their face meaning we’re screwed.’

‘Pretty much, sir.’

‘Christ!’ There was silence for almost a minute before DI Ross spoke again. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to explain this one to the Superintendent.’ There was a hint of resignation in his voice.

‘I’m glad it’s you that has to do that, sir, and not me. This guy’s going to get away with shooting someone in a roomful of people – the way I see it, whoever he is he’s pretty much committed the perfect crime.’

The DI stood up and straightened his tie. ‘Right. I’d better get this over with.’

He picked the constable’s report off the desk and he thought about what the younger man had just said: the perfect crime. As he turned and walked away, he allowed a small smile to creep across his face: it most certainly was. It had first occurred to him that it might be when his wife told him about the odd condition one of her work colleagues had and the support group he went to to help him deal with it; he’d started thinking about it in earnest when he found out they were sleeping together; he’d been almost certain of it by the time he’d decided to kill his wife’s lover just to punish her for leaving him after all those years. Now he’d shot him dead in front of all those witnesses and he knew for sure he was going to get away with it.


Author’s note: Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is a real condition and people who have it are unable to recognise others by their facial features. Until quite recently, it was thought to be a rare condition that only occurred because of some kind of damage to the brain. However, in the last few years it has become clear there’s a second form where people don’t develop it but instead they have it from birth. It’s been estimated that around 1% of the population fall into this category. People who have face blindness from birth may never even realise they have it because to them not recognising people by their faces is normal and let’s face it, have you ever asked someone how they recognise others?

I was in my late 30s before I realised I had prosopagnosia but looking back it explained some of the odd incidents I’d had in my life when I’d failed to recognise people I really should have. Face blindness can occur across a spectrum ranging from mild to severe and I’m closer to that end so it’s quite surprising I didn’t realised I had it sooner. Not long after I found out I had it, I witnessed an assault and I had to tell the police that while I could tell them exactly what happened before they got there, I couldn’t tell them what the person who did it actually looked like (I knew who he was because I saw the police drag him off the victim, my information told them the assault was unprovoked). Needless to say, I got some very odd looks when I explained this to the officers who interviewed me. Luckily the guy pled guilty (this was because he didn’t know I couldn’t actually point at him in court and say ‘he was the one that did it’ – just knowing I’d seen what happened was enough), so it wasn’t too much of a problem but it got me thinking that this could be an interesting premise for a story, especially if I took it to the extreme end of what might be possible. That was when I started wondering: what would happen if a crime was committed in a room full of people like me with fairly severe prosopagnosia? How would the police ever track down who did it when all their procedures are based around making an identification from facial features?

If you want to test your facial recognition abilities or to find out more about prosopagnosia, visit http://www.faceblind.org/.


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.

Why I Hate Movember…And It’s Not Because I Don’t Like Moustaches

4 Nov

Movember is here again, and I hate it.  For those of you who don’t know what Movember is, it’s the challenge for men who do not usually sport one to grow a moustache during November to help raise money for men’s health charities. Why do I hate it?  It’s not because I’m too miserly to give to charity (I’ll happily give), or because I don’t approve of the cause it raises money for (it’s a great cause), or because I don’t like wacky money-raising ideas (I think they’re great). Instead, it’s something more personal.

I have prosopagnosia, a condition also known as face blindness.  The chances are you have never heard of it, and even though I have it, I only I found out it existed a couple of years ago. It is a weird condition that can sometimes stretch peoples’ credulity to the limits and it means that I don’t recognise or remember faces.  I’m fine with everything else, it’s just faces I have a problem with. It seems I’ve had it since I was born (as do about 1% of the population), so to me it’s normal not to recognise people by their faces.  In fact, I’m so used to it that it wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I discovered that this wasn’t what everyone did. At that point, I had myself tested for prosopagnosia (I turned out to be at the moderate to severe end of the spectrum).  Suddenly, a lot of things in my life fell into place.

I struggle with films, especially when the lead characters change how they look (such as dyeing their hair or changing its style), and if I meet people I know out of context, I won’t recognise them.  An example of this occurred a few years ago (before I knew about face blindness), I was asked to pick up a friend’s daughter from school. She was five or six at the time and while I’d known her since she was about eighteen months old, I’d never seen her in her school uniform.  When the end of the day came, I sat outside the school and was faced with a hundred little people running out towards me, all dressed pretty much identically. I was suddenly struck by the terrifying realisation that I couldn’t tell which of them I was meant to be picking up. Luckily she recognised me or it could have got very awkward.

Once I found out I had prosopagnosia, I mentioned it to my brother. He wasn’t surprised. Over the years, he’d repeatedly seen the blank look on my face when I met people who I should clearly have known. My best friend, who I’d known for twenty years, dismisses it as me just not putting in the effort, and I can’t really blame him. It just sounds so bizarre to say that you cannot do something that everyone else around you takes for granted. My girlfriend is very supportive and puts up with me leaning over and asking in a hushed tone who people are, whether they are ones in our social circle or actors in movies (and it can be several times for the same character in the same movie!). She also has to put up with the fact that I can’t always pick her out of a crowd if I don’t remember what clothes she’s wearing on a particular day.

There’s another side to this though. I now realise I tend to primarily recognise people by their hairstyles and I’ll confuse very different people who wear their hair in a similar way. There have been several times when I have been confidently speaking to someone who I thought was one person only to work out from what they’re saying that they a completely different person. As yet, I’ve never put my foot in it too badly when I’ve done this (or at least not as far as I know), but I’m sure one day I will.

Each day I’m faced with people who I don’t recognise when I should, and others who I think I might know when I don’t (because they have similar hairstyles or facial hair to people I do know). My strategy to avoid offending people is to smile and nod at pretty much everyone, just in case.  If it’s someone I know, they won’t be offended.  If it’s not, they’ll just think I’m being friendly (hopefully).

So where does Movember fit into all this?  Well, because of Movember, at this time each year, people start sprouting all sorts of weird and wonderful facial hair. It’s great for the cause they’re raising money for, but is a nightmare for me because it means I’ll no longer recognise them. And it’s not just other people. When I first grew a beard, it took about three years before I could recognise myself if I unexpectedly caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. So, if you know me and you’re participating in Movember, I’ll applaud (or laugh!) at your effort, I’ll give you money for the cause, just don’t get offended if you pass me in the street and I ignore you.  It’s just with that new moustache, I won’t recognise you any more.

For more about Movember, visit: http://uk.movember.com/about or https://www.movember.com/

For more about prosopagnosia, visit: https://www.faceblind.org/research/index.html

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 the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

When Writing Reveals Something You Never Knew About Yourself

28 Oct

I’m not a great believer in writing as therapy, or anything like that, but having now actually finished writing a book and looking back at the experience, I find it has taught me a few things.

Firstly, I can actually write a book. This was something I really wasn’t sure about when I started out. Secondly, writing the first draft is only the start of the process, after you have done that you’ve got to edit, edit and then edit some more.  It took me about three months to write the book, and then six months to edit it down to something that was at lease acceptable and that I was happy to run passed my group of readers.  Then there were another couple of months while I dealt with their comments and the issues they raised. All in all, in terms of time spent, it was a ratio of about one to three between writing and editing (but that might just be me).

The final thing I learned is a bit odd, and more unusual. In some ways it has changed my life, or at least changed (quite literally) the way I see and understand it. When I nervously showed the first draft of my book to my girlfriend, she pointed out two interesting things.  The first was she didn’t like it (she was expecting a finished story rather than an early draft and she was relieved when I explained the difference).  The second was that none of my characters had faces.  I’d described things like heights, hairstyles, beards and clothes, but nowhere had I mentioned anything about what peoples’ faces looked like.

Initially, I didn’t understand what she was talking about, then after a rather confused discussion it gradually dawn on me that we saw and recognised people in very different ways.  I think I’d always known this at some level, as I’m frequently having to ask the person sitting next to me who characters are in films and on TV. I also have a tendency to lose my girlfriend in crowds if I don’t remember what clothes she’s wearing that day, but I’d always presumed this was the same for everyone.  I mean, have you ever asked someone how they recognise other people?  It’s not exactly a question that is ever likely to come up in normal every day conversations.

Anyway, now the question had been asked, or at least answered, I decided to do some digging on the good old internet.  This is where I came across the term Prosopagnosia for the first time, and it seemed to fit my experiences rather well. I went on and got myself tested, and it turns out that this explained a lot.  Prosopagnosia is also known as Face Blindness and people with it have a very specific glitch in their brains that means that they cannot recognise faces (and just faces) they have seen before.  For me this means that I can recognise hairstyles, facial hair and so on, but not other facial characteristics.  Some people get this through a brain injury, while others, like me, have had it from birth.  This is probably why I’d never realised it before, it was something I’d always had and I’d done such a great job of creating ‘work-arounds’ that it wasn’t always obvious that I was seeing the world in a different way.

The upshot of all of this? I no longer feel guilty when I run into someone in the street who clearly knows me when I have absolutely no idea who they are (this is a regular occurrence for me, and has included people I know so well that I should have recognised them instantly).  Secondly, I make more of a concerted effort to remember what my girlfriend is wearing whenever we leave the house so I can find her again if we get separated.  Finally, when creating characters in my writing, I have to consciously remember to describe peoples’ faces and not just leave them as a blank slate (which is the way I see them in my head). This usually requires me to get my girlfriend (some of you are probably starting to feel a bit sorry for her at this point but she is, thankfully, very understanding and supportive) to read over character descriptions and check that I’ve provided enough information. I’m fine about adding it in, I just need someone to remind me that I need to do it.

Has having Face Blindness affected my writing? Now I know I have it, I can look back and say almost certainly.  I tend to write about small groups of people who are all very distinct in terms of ages and characters (and so would be easy to tell apart by non-facial characteristics). I also tend to have people wearing the same clothes throughout (or at least similar ones). This has, undoubtedly pushed me towards post-apocalyptic writing where both of these situations would not seem out of place. And indeed, you could argue that since the majority of people in For Those In Peril On The Sea are infected, zombie-like creatures, they have effectively become the faceless masses that I experience whenever I walk down a busy street.

It also occurred to me while reading into Face Blindness (nice as it is as a word, Prosopagnosia is just too long and confusing to be used on a regular basis), that this would be a great feature for a character in a book, or indeed a nice central hook for a whole story arc. It doesn’t really fit with what I’m currently working on (a follow-up to For Those In Peril On The Sea set in the same post-apocalyptic world but with a new set of easily distinguishable characters), but it’s definitely one to keep on the back-burner.

For more information on Face Blindness visit: https://www.faceblind.org/research/index.html. If you’d like to take a test to see if you have Face Blindness, visit: http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/index.php.

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 the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.