When faces have no name

14 June 2006

New findings from researchers at Harvard and elsewhere suggest that a surprising number of people are face-blind, so bad at recognizing faces that they routinely snub acquaintances and have trouble following movie plots. In extreme cases, they may greet siblings as strangers and struggle to discern which child is theirs at school pick-up time.

The syndrome, known medically as prosopagnosia, was long thought to be a rare neurological curiosity that resulted from brain damage.

Research has begun to suggest that most face-blindness stems from genes, rather than brain injury, and that it is far more widespread than previously suspected, with up to 2 percent of the population affected to some degree. …

Born prosopagnosics, whose brains are usually normal in other respects, often suspect that something is wrong, but cannot put a finger on it. …

But sometimes, the problem “slaps prosopagnosics in the face, and they realize something’s really wrong here,” said Dr Bradley Duchaine [UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience], a former Harvard researcher. …

“I hear parents who go to the day-care center, and for some reason their kid has changed clothes while there, and the parents have no clue who their child is, while the people working there think, ‘What is wrong with this parent?’” …

Duchaine offered a link for readers who want to quiz themselves: www.icn.ucl.ac.uk/facetests/.

Carey Goldberg, Boston Globe