What are face-blind people like?
First of all, face-blind
people are not alike! No more so than any other unrelated group, such
as all left-handed people, or all right-handed people, or all the people
who need glasses.
Still, members of such unrelated groups may face similar problems. For
example, most people who have glasses know what it can be like to walk
into the rain, or to try to find the glasses without wearing them. Most
left-handed people have probably at one time or another tried to use a
can opener or pair of scissors made for right-handed people.
In a similar manner face-blind people keep ending up in some situations
that other people only rarely face. In trying to find good solutions to
these situations many face-blind come up with the same solutions. On this
page I have tried to list some of these common solutions.
Recognizing by other means than face
I believe most people, both face-blind and non-face-blind, use whatever
means are available to recognize other people.
If you can see and use the face for identification, this is the quickest
way to identify someone because the brain has a special processor that
will identify the person you are looking at within milliseconds.
If you are unable to use the face, for example because you are talking
to someone on the telephone, or it is dark, or you are at a masquerade,
or something like that, you will usually ask who it is.
If you are unable to use the face because you are face-blind, you may still
ask. Many people are offended however, by not being recognized in broad
daylight by someone who is obviously not completely blind. Because of
that, this approach works best with people who know that you are face-blind.
Since the method is used for identification however, you don't know who
it is you are talking to, so unless you have told everyone around you
about your face-blindness, you can't know whether this is someone who
knows about it or not.
If you can't use the face, and you can't ask (for whatever reason), there
are a number of other options:
If a person is standing in the same place
and wearing the same clothes as someone did a while ago, it is likely
to be the same person. Most people would use this at a masquerade.
If you have arranged to meet a person in
a certain place and at a certain time, and you find someone in that spot
who looks approximately like that person, it probably is that person.
Most people would use this method to find someone they have only seen
a small photo of.
People tend to speak about things they have
talked about before. If someone appears to continue a previous discussion,
it is probably the same person that you had this discussion with last
Sound of voice. Many people would use this
in combination with the previous when someone does not introduce himself
or herself when talking on the telephone.
Identifying by hair
If you can not use the face for identification, there is really very little
else you can see of a person that you meet. Clothes usually cover everything
except the head and the hands. This means that the only things available
for identifying someone by looks are face, hair, and hands.
So far I have not met anyone who uses hands for identification. I wonder
Identifying by other automatic means
Many face-blind people can identify someone's age, gender and general body
shape as automatically as most people can. (Non face-blind people can probably
see the identity in the same automatic way.) Of course an identification
like 'middle aged big boned man' is not sufficient to uniquely identify
someone. Still, it can be a good help for excluding 90% of a group when
looking for a certain person.
Identifying by clothes
When face can not be used for identification, and hands are also not used,
the rest of the body can still provide some information. The rest of the
body is usually covered with clothes, but especially when someone is moving,
the body shape can still be guessed. Most people have probably at one
time or another recognized someone by their moving silhouette only. This
kind of identification can be common for example when someone wears a
helmet that covers the face. The clothes themselves may also provide some
information. If you know for example that someone uses a certain leatherjacket,
you will probably use that information to find him or her among a number
of people on motor cycles (using helmets).
Some face-blind people memorize the clothes of for example their classmates
every morning, and use them for identification during the rest of the
Identifying by voice
Many face-blind people use the voice as a help to identify others. This
of course works only after you have started talking to an unidentified
individual. As you can appreciate, it is in the nature of face-blindness
that this happens quite often.
Scrounging on other peoples face processors
When I see someone I think might be someone I know, I try to catch their
eye. I do it only just so that a stranger would not find it offending.
If it is the person I know, I see in their face if they recognize me.
That way I can be sure of who it is. I know that some other face-blind
people use this, but I don't know how common it is. It only works of course
for those of us who can read other peoples faces.
Most people concentrate on what works best for them. People who are neither
face-blind nor blind usually concentrate on the face for identification.
People who can not use the face will concentrate on whatever works best
for them. This does not mean that we can not use other available means
for identification when we need to. Often what we concentrate our efforts
on is a combination of all the things we find useful.
Keeping a list of who we are likely to meet
All the methods above works well for telling who is who of two people.
With lots of practice they can be used to identify perhaps two hundred
people. They will not work (as the face identification processor does)
on two hundred thousand people or more.
If you think that I am giving the face processor too much credit, consider
this: Imagine a man (or woman) walking in a city of a million citizens.
Meeting a friend unexpectedly in a street, he would immediately recognize
him or her (assuming he looked at him or her). He would do so without
any hesitation about whether it is his friend or not. This means that
among the million possible faces, the face processor immediately identified
this face, and did so with absolute certainty.
Because the other methods are less reliable, the number of individuals
to choose between must somehow be reduced. One way of doing this is to
always keep a list of who is likely to turn up at any given time. What
happens is basically that whenever you see a person, you recall the 10
most likely persons you might meet at that time and place. Then you ask
for each of the ten, "Is this A?". If the answer is yes, you have identified
the person, if the answer is no, you continue with the next person on
the list, asking "Is this B?", and so on.
This method can be improved in many ways, for example by checking only
people on the list who are of the same approximate age and gender as the
one you meet. It still takes a long time in a situation where every tenth
of a second counts. For me (and I suspect it is the same thing for most
people who use this method) it is automatic and I am usually hardly aware
of it. It has to be automatic in order to be fast enough in a situation
where I am busy greeting the person that I meet.
I think many non face-blind people also use this method. That is why they
too can sometimes find it hard to recognize someone out of context. They
(just like face-blind people) will rely on it only when the face recognition
fails however, so they will rarely have this problem with their own friends.
Being 'put off'
There is a wide variety of visual factors that can hinder face-blind people
from recognizing someone. A common hindrance occurs when a person who
can usually be identified changes his or her appearance: cuts hair short
when it was long, dyes it black when it was blonde. Shaving off or growing
facial hair can cause a similar problem, or adding or removing spectacles,
or wearing a hat or an unfamiliar color. Another common hindrance is seeing
a person 'out of context', or in a place with which the face-blind person
does not associate them. Some face-blind people can not pick their family
out of photographs, or recognize them in crowds.
Many face-blind people have 'pairs' of people that look so similar that
the face-blind person can not tell which one he or she is talking to. The
pair does not even need to look alike by normal standards, simply because
the face-blind person is unable to use 'normal standards'. They will look
alike however in the respects that that particular face-blind person uses
Most people expect to be recognized within a tenth of a second. "She
looked straight at me." is almost considered synonymous with "She
must have recognized me.". This is usually no problem when you have
a working automatic face processor in your brain. It will recognize any
known face within that time. For a face-blind person however that face
processor does not work, and all alternative methods of identifying someone
are usually much slower.
After recognizing someone you are supposed to greet him or her. If you
fail to do that within a second or two, your friend may laugh and say
you must have been lost in thought. If you fail to greet them within 5
seconds, they will wonder what is wrong. If this happens several times,
they will very likely stop greeting you. When that happens you will probably
have lost a friend, for you will not be able to find them again.
To prevent this from happening, many face-blind people will greet within
a second, in spite of not having had enough time to recognize someone.
This of course means that there is no way we can selectively greet only
friends. We have to greet everyone who might be a friend, which can be
pretty much anyone we meet.
Another advantage with greeting people is that it will take an extra precious
second before they think we are staring. That second can well be the difference
between recognizing someone and not recognizing him or her.
When you have greeted a friend, they tend to greet back. If you are able
to read faces, that greeting can provide lots of information about how
close friends you are, and how long it was since you last met. After that
the final identification is a lot easier.
Some face-blind people (I am one of them) become experts at pretending
they knew all along who someone was when they finally learn about it.
Since many people are offended by not being recognized, I would simply
not let them know that I had not recognized them. This approach was the
only one that worked for me before I got in touch with other face-blind
people. When I tried to apologize and explain my problem with recognizing
others I would just not be believed.
This is the biggest difference for me after I got in touch with other
face-blind people. Suddenly now people believe me when I tell them I can't
Still, my reflexes for not letting anyone notice are very strong. I think
that still most of the times I don't recognize someone, they have no idea
they were not recognized.
Never use Names
Many face-blind people go to great lengths to avoid using names. The more
sure you are about who it is that you are talking to, the more devastating
a mistake usually is if it is found out. One way of covering up mistakes
is not to let the one you are talking to realize that you thought they
were someone else. If you call them by the wrong name, they will certainly
know right away.
I probably use other people's names in their presence less than once a
month, and always with a rush of adrenaline.
There are two exceptions to this. One is that I use my husband's name
(almost) without hesitation. The other is when I talk about someone, and
the sentence does not say whether the person is there or not, e.g. when
I ask for someone. I just have to make sure I don't ask the person I'm
trying to find, for him or herself.
I know that some face-blind people use the name the first time they meet
someone to try to learn it faster. I silently think the name of the people
that I meet. I do this every time I meet them, just to practice recognizing
Many face-blind people try to get the person they are talking with to tell
them who they are. Even if you don't dare to ask them directly, they can
often give you clues. If a woman mention her child John for example, you
will know that you are talking to Johns mother Mary (names made up for
this text only). If she mentions an evening class, she is likely to be
a classmate. If she mentions the neighbors next door, she is likely to
live near by. Etc.
Many face-blind people avoid situations where a failure to recognize others
can not be covered up. I for example shun the kind of name-games where
you are supposed to name work mates or classmates to "get to know
each other". Another situation, which fortunately is unusual here
in Sweden, is when you are expected to formally introduce people, or when
you are expected to address the people you are talking to by name.
Many face-blind people dislike or fail in everyday politics. Since politics
includes knowing everyone's relation with everyone, it can be very hard
for face-blind people to untangle. A face-blind person puts a great effort
into even just identifying the other people. Only after that is it possible
to start doing politics. That gives everyone else a head start, leaving
the face-blind person far behind. Because of this many face-blind people
turn to other better ways of making their voice heard.
Cosmetics and Haircuts
Many face-blind people don't use cosmetics or style their hair. I don't
yet know why. Perhaps we don't see the need to enhance what we don't notice
Some face-blind people do not like to shop for clothes. We know we want
something comfortable, but we never seem to be quite sure what is an acceptable
style and not. It can also be that when we look in the mirror, what we
see does not 'look like me'. Then it can be hard to tell whether the clothes
look good on me.
"I'm bad with names too"
This is a very common reply when you try to explain your problems to people
who have not heard about prosopagnosia. Not remembering a name
is NOT the same as not recognizing someone. If you forget a name, you
still know whom it is that you are talking to. If you don't recognize
his or her face however, you will think that you are talking to a complete
Many face-blind people who do not know that the problem is neurological,
think that their problems are caused by that they are not trying hard
enough. This is not the case. To complain that someone who is completely
face-blind often doesn't recognize people they know, is like complaining
that a one-legged man hobbles when he walks. The walking or recognizing
is in itself a feat every time it works.
Another comparison could be that a color-blind person could also not tell
who it is in the photo to the left.
Anyone who can not answer such a simple question must be stupid and retarded,
As you can see it has nothing to do with intelligence or how hard you
try. It is simply a matter of not receiving the information.
Many face-blind people have tried various memorizing and mind mapping
techniques. So far I have not heard of anyone who have managed to improve
their ability to recognize other people in that way. One reason may be
that most of these techniques aim at being able to remember the name and
attach it to the face. They are usually not aimed at improving the ability
to recognize the face in itself. Another reason may be the fact that they
aim at improving the memory at all;
Memory is not the problem
Face blind people don't suffer from memory lapses. Face blindness in fact
has very little to do with memory at all. Of course a colorblind person
can not remember what red looks like. He or she has never seen the color
red. In the same way it can be hard for a face-blind person to remember
the identity of a face. We have never seen it. We remember however the
person behind the face perfectly well.
I sometimes get asked whether photographs can be of help. They do not
give me a certainty in the identification, but they can give me general
information like gender, age, general body shape and haircut. If I know
I will meet for example exactly four people, then the information from
recent photos can enable me to guess who is who.
Another common question is if recognizing of others can get improved with
practice. I usually answer that yes it can, and that is why I am able
to live a normal life. Since this is something I have worked with and
practiced every day of my whole life, whether I knew it was called prosopagnosia
or not, I am now as good at it as I am likely to ever get.
Faceblindness is an unusual handicap. It is so unusual that many people
don't believe it exists until they learn it has a scientific name. Because
of this it is very hard to tell others about your face-blindness. I was
completely unable to explain my problems to people around me until I got
to know others in my own situation. The people I tried to tell would either
be offended at not being recognized, or not understand the severity of
the problem, or think it was caused by something else.
Many face-blind people have been accused of not trying hard enough, or
not looking, or not being interested, or even being to stuck-up to say
My main reason for creating this web site is to help us face-blind people
to be understood, and to understand ourselves what the problem is, and
that we are not failing, but succeeding against all odds. :-)