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When every face looks the same

28 April 2006

We’ve all failed to recognise someone we know or forgotten a person’s name, but for people with prosopagnosia – or ‘face blindness’ – this happens with everyone they meet. John (not real name), 30, is a graphic designer who was diagnosed with face blindness two months ago. Here’s his story.“I first became aware that I was prosopagnosic about two months ago, but I’ve always struggled with faces and have had to develop a web of support mechanisms to help me get round it.

“It’s fortunate that I live in London, as this means that I have a relatively segmented life so I don’t tend to accidentally meet people or see people out of context. It’s only when I’m faced with tests, like those I did with Dr Brad Duchaine [UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience], and all my support systems are removed, that I realise how incapable I am. Having said that, I now notice it occuring on a day-to-day basis. …

“Because I can’t distinguish between faces, I use people’s clothes, hair, mannerisms, gait, voice and as many verbal clues as I can to ‘recognise’ them. I also consider who they’re with to help me. This is a lot of information, so most of the time it’s easy, but the more you reduce the data the harder it is for me to work it out. …

“In the past I always believed I failed to recognise people because I was inattentive, insensitive, lazy, self-obsessed and stupid. Being diagnosed has therefore been emotional yet amazingly liberating. …

“You can’t treat prosopagnosia, not in a chemical or therapeutic way, but you can learn mechanisms to get yourself out of a jam, and rely on other people not to notice. It’s frustrating that there are no solutions, but finding out more about it helps a great deal, and I can now recognise it and worry about it less. It has become even more comical now, and I can happily laugh about it.

“I met Dr Duchaine after responding to an online survey. Since then I’ve visited him and his team at their office and done some tests and memory games, like trying to recognise celebrities who have had their hair removed. It has made me feel positive – it’s a fascinating condition, perhaps more so to those who have it.” …

If you think you are prosopagnosic or show any of the symptoms of prosopagnosia, Dr Duchaine and his team would like to hear from you. Visit www.faceblind.org for more details.

Ross Chainey, MSN Health