They all look the same to me

18 March 2006

From blanking colleagues and acquaintances, Andrew Billen knew that his face-blindness was bad — then tests revealed just how bad. …

Prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. The term was invented in 1947 by Joachim Bodamer, a German neurologist, who combined the Greek for face with the medical term for recognition impairment, agnosia, and a handful of scientists have been investigating the syndrome ever since. …

I have had prosopagnosia diagnosed. …

To you, I appear rude, stand-offish, solipsistic or, as a colleague says, “a typical man”. Yet once I have satisfied myself as to who you are, I am really quite good at remembering your life stories and children’s names. Put it this way: it makes parties difficult.

The other day I caught the subject being discussed on the regional news by Dr Brad Duchaine [UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience]. He was looking for prosopagnosics to test. A week later I was sitting in his lab in Bloomsbury, undergoing 90 minutes of visual tests on a laptop. In the first few quizzes I was shown 50 pictures, first of houses, then cars and, finally, slightly bizarrely, toy horses. Ten of these in each test would be shown twice and I had to press a key when I recognised a picture I had seen previously.

It really wasn’t that difficult, but then the test was repeated with photographs of bald, jowly men of the Mitchell brothers/Bob Hoskins type. … I tried to note particular characteristics – dimples, enlarged noses – but they all looked much the same to me. I was lost.

“Now, you see, control groups of non-prosopagnosics find all these tests really easy,” Dr Duchaine told me afterwards. “People clean up on them. My wife got only one wrong. I mean, we all make mistakes from time to time, but prosopagnosics do so much more often. They also over-recognise people; greet people they have never met.” …
Dr Duchaine has been researching the syndrome for ten years. At the beginning he thought the problem quite rare, but has found it to be more common. …

There is evidence, Dr Duchaine says, that face recognition involves particularly the brain’s right hemisphere, popularly thought to be the intuitive, holistic side. Prosopagnosia is a result of an impairment to a mechanism that specifically identifies faces, which is why I could tell the cars, houses and horses apart. His hunch is that there is no one cause for it, that, indeed, prosopagnosia may actually be being used as an umbrella term for several distinct conditions. Acquired prosopagnosia, for instance, is caused by head injury or brain illness. …

Recognising faces must have been a useful evolutionary skill, I said. He agreed but pointed out that it is becoming ever more demanding. Centuries ago when we lived in small communities, you might need to identify 200 faces in a lifetime. Today, in cities and thanks to television, we might see that number in a day. If you can’t recognise them, there is no cure. …

And there was one test I was really terrible at. I had to identify celebrity faces shorn of their hair. I knew I had not done well, failing to recognise even the first one, which was of Dr Duchaine, and I had only just met him. I also drew a blank with both Beckhams, Prince William and Einstein. I thought Kate Moss was Natalie Portman and Arnie Schwarzenegger was Jim Carrey. Save for the brain-damaged, Dr Duchaine had never met someone so rubbish at this test. Interesting, I said, given my job. “Which is?” he asked. Celebrity interviewer, I said. And I had interviewed Arnie twice.

Andrew Billen, ‘The Times’, 18 March 2006