Imagine being able to see but being blind to faces.
There is an unusual condition that some people are born with or can develop as the result of a a stroke, traumatic brain injury or the onset of certain neuro-degenerative diseases. This is called prosopagnosia which comes from the Greek words for ‘face’ and ‘lack of knowledge’.
Prosopagnosia is a neurological disorder characterised by the inability to recognise faces and is “a very debilitating condition“. This facial agnosia or face blindness has been recognised by the NHS since 2016.
Some people with the disorder are unable to recognise their own face, some may have difficulty recognising a familiar face or their families and others will be unable to discriminate between unknown faces. There are then some who may not even be able to distinguish a face as being different from an object.
Interestingly, face blindness is not related to memory dysfunction, memory loss, impaired vision, or learning disabilities.
Prosopagnosia is thought to be the result of abnormalities, damage, or impairment in the right fusiform gyrus, a fold in the brain that appears to coordinate the neural systems that control facial perception and memory.
One of the most famous academic sufferers of face blindness was the late neuroscientist Oliver Sacks who tells us more about his experiences in the following video.
A case of a prosopagnosia is “Dr P.” in Oliver Sacks’ 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
One of the most famous celebrity actors Brad Pitt also revealed he has prosopagnosia.
It is thought that face blindness is more common than autism and many people go undiagnosed. Prosopagnosia effects an estimated 2.5% of the population and there is no cure for it although “recent case studies using cognitive training have shown that it is possible to enhance face recognition abilities in individuals with developmental prosopagnosia.”
Treatment may focus on the development of compensatory skills such as attending to cues like unique physical characteristics or voice.
In an interview with The Guardian, Dr Sarah Bate, an associate professor of psychology at Bournemouth University, says its impact can be severe if undetected:
Particularly for children, there is a real knock-on effect in how [face blindness] influences their social and emotional wellbeing and ongoing educational development. There might never be a cure, but we are interested in early detection so we have a chance to improve facial-recognition skills in that critical window when a child is young enough to benefit.
And that, for teachers, is worth considering. How many children could also suffer from face blindness and this go unrecognised?
Now consider this from a teacher’s perspective and a sufferer of face blindness. Could there be anything more debilitating not being able to remember who your students are and how that would impact on students? A teacher with face blindness might identify students by their seat in the classroom or bag they carry each day but that would be hard work moving around the school and doing particular lessons like PE.
At the opposite end of the scale to face blindness are super-recognisers, the people who never forget a face and can spot faces in a sea of faces. Super-recognisers are employed by the Police to help spot and identify offenders. You might be a super-recogniser and not even know it – take this test and find out.
Face blindness has been featured in a documentary on the CBBC channel and their amazing ‘My Life’ stories.