Q & A: Face Blindness — is it real or did you make that up?

In the novel Faces, the main character — Jessica — suffers a concussion following a rappelling accident and realizes she can no longer recognize most people. The condition is called prosopagnosia (pro – soap – ag – NO – shia) or face blindness. Since this is a work of fiction, readers have asked if I invented the condition.

Q: Is prosopagnosia something you made up?

A: In a word: No. It’s very real, and I have a mild to moderate form of the condition. I believe I’ve had it all my life (developmental prosopagnosia), unlike the character Jessica who acquires the condition following a brain injury. Scientists currently believe that approximately 2 to 2.5% of the population shares this condition.

Q: Have you always known you were face blind?

A: No. I didn’t realize that I might be perceiving things differently from others until I was in my mid-30s. I was working as a financial planner, which entailed multiple face-to-face meetings with my clients. Long story short — I had written the wrong client name — Perkins — in my appointment calendar, and was in a panic about which client was really going to show up one morning for that meeting. I knew it was highly unlikely that I would recognize my client when they arrived, and realized it would be quite embarrassing and unprofessional to have to ask them for their name. So, I explained my dilemma to my office mates, and asked if one of them could greet the client, ask for their name, and come back to my office to tell me who was out in the lobby.

The funny part about the story is that “Perkins” didn’t refer to my client by that name, but to a special breakfast meeting we were having at the nearby Perkins restaurant. However, the incident started a conversation among my co-workers. None of them thought they’d have any difficultly whatsoever recognizing a random client who showed up at our office for a meeting. I found that astonishing. On numerous occasions, I would meet for an hour or more with a new client, focusing carefully on not only what they said but also looking for signs of stress or enthusiasm in their face and body language. We would schedule a followup meeting a week later. My client would walk into my office, and I’d stare at their face in bewilderment. It was very common for me to feel I had never seen this person’s face before in my life. I’d recognize their voice and mannerisms, I’d remember lots of details about our conversation without referring to my notes — but their face was totally new to me.

I didn’t know there was a name for what I experienced until just a few years ago. I googled “difficulty recognizing faces” and began reading about prosopagnosia, took some online tests, and realized I had found others who shared my experiences exactly. It was a great relief.

Q: How can I learn more about prosopagnosia?

A: Here are just a few resources on the web:
http://faceblind.org
http://prosopagnosiaresearch.org
http://www.cogsci.mq.edu.au/research/projects/prosopagnosia/
http://prosopagnosic.blogspot.com/
http://www.choisser.com/faceblind/
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Prosopagnosia/148254705227784

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