Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Are you sure we've met before?

If I meet someone at a party and we chat a while, I will always make sure to say to them, if you see me a week from now and I don't recognize you, don't be offended. I'm not snubbing you, I just can't remember faces of people until I've talked to them on several occasions.

I've heard of people much worse, people who can't recognize their own wife if she changes her hairstyle, and there's an
article in the New York Times on the subject. Which lead me to faceblind.org, which lead to two tests to see if you're "face blind," a condition known as prosopagnosia.

On the tests where you have to identify celebrities I do just fine. In fact, once I've seen someone enough times I'm almost as good at recognizing them as most people. Usually if I meet someone and talk to them on three separate occasions within a couple of months that will be enough. And I am able to recognize people generally for perhaps a day after I meet them (people I see rarely are another matter; there's one guy I've given the "don't be offended if I don't recognize you" speech to several times, because he's a friend of a friend I see about twice a year. It's like that guy in Memento who keeps having to explain his situation).

I did poorly on the second test, scoring 74%, which is one percentage into the "possibly face blind" category. My girlfriend scored an average 85% while Francis, the disgustingly brilliant guy who sent me the link to the Times article, scored 100%.

I'm glad to find a test that suggests this is a real problem, because I've been accused of just being anti-social and someone who just doesn't really try to remember people. Which isn't at all true. I have at times studied faces intently during conversation, only to find two weeks later they don't even have the same hair color I thought they had. It doesn't matter if it's a passing waiter or a girl I'm hot for; all memory of the face will fade within a few days. I do remember they exist, my impression of them and what we talked about, I just don't remember their face. (A general impression can sometimes be enough in the right context: I didn't recognize my girlfriend's face the next time I saw her, but I remembered swing dancing with a tall skinny girl so when I was at a swing dance club and saw a tall skinny girl I kept walking past her in hopes it was her and she would recognize me, which she finally did).

The problem with this one is people don't believe it. It's true in general for invisible imperfections. No one accuses a guy with a cast on his leg of not trying to jump the high hurdle, but people with an anxiety disorder are told they are just letting their fears get the best of them. But the fact is, we are all limited both physically and mentally. Not everyone can run a five-minute mile and not everyone can memorize a book just by reading it, nor could any amount of training make it possible for them, but some people can do these things easily. But while no one will look down on you for not being able to memorize a book, because it's a rare talent, people will judge someone who can't remember faces, because it's so rare that they just don't believe it. People are far more accepting of people who can't remember names (which I also can't do). I've had people get very mad at me for forgetting their face.

All you people who can recognize faces are so lucky and don't even realize it.

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