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Anyone Here With Prosopagnosia?

  1. Feb 13, 2013 #1
    Oliver Sacks became famous with the publication of his 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The title story was about a patient of his who had severe global agnosia; while his eyes functioned perfectly well his brain could not integrate what he saw, rendering him unable to recognize anything he looked at. He mistook fireplugs for children, and, looking around for his hat when leaving Sacks' office, he reached out and grabbed his wife's head.

    In a more recent book, The Mind's Eye, Sacks devotes a chapter to a less severe agnosia, the inability to recognize faces. This is called prosopagnosia. People with this condition cannot recognize peoples faces. They can literally talk to someone for an hour, but if that person leaves the room and comes back in wearing different clothes, they won't recognize them. They can walk past a parent or sibling on the street and have no idea who they are.

    Now, what is a bit startling to me is that Sacks reveals that this problem, which frequently runs in families and therefore is probably genetic (except when caused by stroke or other brain insults), is very much more widespread than even many neurologists and neuroscientists realize. The majority of people born with it do not report it to any doctor and it's just not tested for, like colorblindness or hearing problems. But, it's estimated by some researchers to affect 2% of the population. That's 6 million people in the US alone.

    That being the case, there must be PF'ers who suffer from it, who don't realize it's an inherited genetic condition, and who have just considered themselves really poor at remembering faces.

    Here's a site:


    They have a famous face recognition test:


    (They ask for your age for the test and I think that's because they give you an age appropriate selection of famous faces to recognize. If you're 18 I think you'll get a whole different selection of faces to identify than I did, being 57. The test is not definitive at all, but if you really suck at it it could be a red flag. I did pretty well with 97%.)

    I am not aware I have ever met anyone with this problem, but, as with many conditions, people who have it develop elaborate compensatory mechanisms that can hide it. Still, 2% of the population seems very like a very high figure for it to be so unknown.

    I was additionally blown away when Sacks dropped the quiet bombshell of revealing that he, himself, has suffered from it his whole life. He describes his problem in detail and the compensatory mechanisms he's created. I would like to ask him why he never mentioned it in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, It certainly seems to explain why that patient was so salient to him, but it seems a bit disingenuous of him to allow the reader to marvel at the patient's condition while not mentioning he, himself, was halfway toward the same condition.
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  3. Feb 18, 2013 #2


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    83% for me and I gave myself credit for ones that I knew but couldn't remember their name. I do have some difficulty recognizing people sometimes. What's weird is that I recognize people easier by their dogs. What I mean by that is that I may not recognize a person that I rarely see but, if they have their dog with them, I recognize them easier and can recall more details about them. One of my quirks I guess. :rolleyes:
  4. Feb 18, 2013 #3
    I'm really good with recognizing faces. I got 100%. I didn't get Margret Thatcher or Tony Blair, but that's because I didn't know what they looked like, so those don't count.
  5. Feb 18, 2013 #4


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    93%, 26/28 - I didn't know 2 people (I mean, I know the names, but I haven't seen them in any shows or movies - Ophra's show is not something very popular here). Strange, from what I remember I haven't recognized just one person (Tony Blair) that I think I should recognize, so it should be 27/28, not 26/28.
  6. Feb 18, 2013 #5
    26/26 I didn't know some of the American government people and the British PM.
  7. Feb 18, 2013 #6

    jim hardy

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    16/26 62%

    i am told face blindness goes with mild asperger's...

    i think there are other aspects to it.
    In high school i read so much science fiction i could read a few lines and name the author... and could name the major symphony orchestras by their distinct sound, and that over AM radio.
  8. Feb 18, 2013 #7


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    As far as I am aware (and I've also read the man who mistook his wife for a hat) prosopagnosia is qualitatively different to poor facial recognition. A sufferer of prosopagnosia for instance has great difficulty discerning even friends and family members until they start speaking or have a very obvious facial feature such as a beard or birth mark.

    The test offered seems too culturally biased to me. Whether or not you recognise famous faces is largely down to your specific interests and peer group. Obviously there are certain people that it would be very difficult not to know due to the frequency in which they are portrayed either in current affairs (I.e. your countries leader) but outside of that its quite difficult to guarantee that a celebrity will be known. Good example: the first person for me was "Cher" who I've heard of, know is a singer but can't name any songs and probably have only seen at least referenced but not really paid attention to on tv shows and the like. Whilst there is an option in the test to say "I'm not familiar with this person" I think setting it up as a dichotomy will undermine some of the data. Rather for each person it would be better to have a sliding scale to assess how much people's self confessed knowledge reflects their ability to recognise a face.

    Either way though a famous person test doesn't seem appropriate. I don't see why they didn't just go with a far more simple test of showing X unknown people along with their names and test to see how many can be identified after. Alternatively a questionnaire that asks the participant to reflect on how easy they find it to remember the names of new people and how frequently they run into the problem of not knowing someone's name but knowing that they have been introduced. Either way I remain skeptical that a test to indicate prosopagnosia can be devised that is so simple that it can be hosted on a website in this fashion.
  9. Feb 18, 2013 #8
    I'm great at remembering names but terrible at faces...:redface:
  10. Feb 18, 2013 #9


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    Tony Blair's picture looked like Johnny Knoxville to me.


    Robert Duval is not Robert Deniro. I'll take half credit though. Gangsters!

    I think I'll give myself 100%.
    I know who all these people are.

    Though I'm curious about Prosopagnosia.
    I can't seem to store new faces.
    I'll be talking to a new face, they'll leave and come back 5 minutes later, and I will have zero recollection of them.

    Or is that simply called, bad with faces?

    I once told someone that I could selectively, mentally, choose, or choose not to, remember things. He told me that was insane. Brains don't work like that.

    I think mine does.

    As a lame excuse, I do have 15,000 co-workers, and know most all their names. Perhaps my brain is full. :tongue2:
  11. Feb 18, 2013 #10
    As a cognitive neuroscientist, I can provide a little factoid some may not be aware of. Face processing in the brain is mostly carried out by a region called the inferotemporal cortex, which is located on the underside of the temporal lobes. The vast majority of the processing for faces is in the right hemisphere for right hand dominant individuals. What is especially notable is the vast amount of cortical tissue in the human brain and primate brain in general that is devoted to face processing. From traditional single unit studies and more recent fMRI mappings, the area of the brain devoted to face processing can approach up to a quarter of total cortex.

    It goes to show how important evolutionarily this social adaptation was to hominin social and cultural development. Acute Prosopagnosia is known to be commonly associated with damage to these inferotemporal regions.
  12. Feb 18, 2013 #11


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    I may have some other kind of syndrome. I could not remember the two Scientology actor's names for several minutes.


    I had a very bad experience with scientologists when I was ~19. They made me want to cry.

  13. Feb 18, 2013 #12


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    80% (16/30 but I didn't know a lot of those people).
    I missed people like Madonna who I very rarely see on the web. In fact I don't really know how she is. The only pictures of her face I might have seen were a comparative of "with and without makeup", they looked like 2 different people so it's hard for my brain to guess how she is and was presented in the test.
    I may not be especially good at recognizing faces but I believe I don't suffer from Prosopagnosia.
  14. Feb 18, 2013 #13
    Prosopagnosia is poor facial recognition ability, due to neurological problems. The man in Sacks' story had global visual agnosia. He couldn't recognize anything by sight. Mere Prosopagnosia is not that severe. But I recommend you read The Mind's Eye for a comprehensive description of it.
    If you go to the site's main page you'll see there's an option to select some other languages. Maybe some of our members can try the face recognition test for Hebrew or Danish or French and see if the Famous Faces are culture appropriate.

    I can't judge how the English version looks to someone from the UK, but I thought they did an excellent job of pitching it to my age group as an American. I had no interest in a lot of the faces but recognized them anyway because they are so ubiquitously seen here. The only one I got wrong out of 30 was Tony Blair. (It surprised me because I'm well aware of him, and also had no problem with Margaret Thatcher or Lady Di.)

    Right off the bat the pictures looked peculiar to me. They had photoshopped the hair out of them and I believe they also put them through some kind of filter to de-specify details. As you said, a person with prosopagnosia can latch on to specific features and recognize those, but the filter seemed intended to discourage that and to require the test-taker to perceive the face as a whole. I often felt I had never seen the face before at first glance, but it would come to me a second later. My impression is that the test is probably better designed than you think. At the same time, though, they heaped plenty of disclaimers onto it, so I wouldn't think too much about it unless you did really miserably.
  15. Feb 18, 2013 #14


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    1/30 was mistaken (Adam Sandler for Ben Stiller).

    What is it called when you can recognize the face, but can't say the name while you're familiar with the name?
  16. Feb 18, 2013 #15
    You're French, aren't you? Did you try the French version?
  17. Feb 18, 2013 #16
    Aphasia. Hehe. Same thing happens to me all the time. I know the face perfectly but the name just won't come to me.
  18. Feb 18, 2013 #17


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    Hmm fair enough. I was under the impression that prosopagnosia is a condition whereby you can't recognise faces at all. In which case my question would be what is the name of that condition...

    Edit: I believe I've found the source of my confusion. After doing a bit of googling and flicking through forums, awareness sites and a few paper intros it seems that prosopagnosia occurs with differing severity in patients. Some have severe or total prosopagnosia which means they can't recognise anyone's face at all including long term family members and friends. Others have a more mild condition whereby they must input far more conscious effort into recognising a face than others. Interesting stuff.
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2013
  19. Feb 18, 2013 #18


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    Thanks, good to know :smile: It happened to about half the faces that I have a complete mental picture of who they are and what they do, but I can't say the name.. even characters like Jerry Seinfeld ("friend of Elaine, the short, and weird guy").
  20. Feb 18, 2013 #19
    It makes sense there's be degrees of it since there would be degrees of damage to the areas DiracPool mentioned. The Fusiform Face Area is a particularly critical location, but it's not the whole story.

    They are behind in researching this particular disability, too, because of the long term resistance in believing a person's ability to recognize faces had a dedicated "circuit" apart from the ability to recognize any 3-D form. No one has explained why this should be the case, but it does, in fact, seem to be the case. People with prosopagnosia have no trouble recognizing books, cars, pencils, trees, etc. (There is usually, however, an associated trouble with recognizing places as a whole, strangely enough. Prosopagnostics(?) often get lost when they go out.)
  21. Feb 18, 2013 #20
    Exactly. I 'cheated' on the face test in the sense that I had to google "Forrest Gump" before the name "Tom Hanks" would enter my brain. I also had to google one of Jerry Stiller's and Brad Pitt's movies, to get their names to come up. This happens to me a lot: I can see an actor's face, name a few movies they were in, but can't remember the actor's name for the life of me.

    Edit: It's called Anomic Aphasia. (Perfectly normal for someone who has it to forget exactly what it's called.)

  22. Feb 18, 2013 #21


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    That's very recognizable, sometimes it feels like I'm playing pictionary trying to describe an object and people trying to guess what I'm trying to say.

    How do people with Prosopagnosia function in society? One would think they'd have a lot of trouble with functioning in social situations. Don't they feel the world is dominated by robots? At least people who've acquired it during their lifetime and think their loved ones are replaced by actors.
  23. Feb 18, 2013 #22


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    That's how I answered many of the questions. :redface:

    "that scientology dude from Mission Impossible"

    but I never gave up... I went up and down through the ENTIRE alphabet (Albert? Nope. Bruce? Nope. Charley? nope.) twice before Cruises name popped into my head.

    And since we're on a learning spree today, what is that called?
  24. Feb 18, 2013 #23
    So I have brain damage?

    The worst that happens to me is knowing a formula, its derivation and all of the theory behind it but being unable to say the name of the scientist that the formula was named after.For example the name of the individual Maxwell's equations or sometime even their collective name.:cry:

    On the other had I don't have a problem memorizing images and faces
    I only missed Oprah and Tony Blair on that test but I couldn't say half their names immediately.
  25. Feb 18, 2013 #24
    Oliver Sacks' close friends and associates all know about it and announce who they are when approaching him. He also has an assistant who tells him who everyone is at social functions, and who warns people to say their name when they approach him. Beyond that, his life is often a comedy of errors, and he has spent it making a lot of excuses about 'having a bad memory for faces'.
    That's not prosopagnosia. That's a completely different thing called Capgras Syndrome which involves damage to the amygdala/hippocampus. People with Capgras have no recognition problem. What fails to kick in is the feeling of familiarity. Capgras is like the opposite of deja vu, triggered by the sight of certain things that should feel familiar but don't. Whereas deja vu instills you with a false sense of hyperfamiliarity, Capgras Syndrome is a problem of false hypofamiliarity. Ramachandran discusses this at length in Phantoms in the Brain. He interviewed and examined a guy who was convinced his parents were imposters based on the fact they completely failed to evoke any feelings of familiarity in him. He could see them perfectly well, and had no problems recognizing people in general. There was another case where a woman believed her poodle was an imposter. It's often limited to specific entities, whereas prosopagnosia is universal.
  26. Feb 18, 2013 #25
    I have no idea, of course. There's also the Freudian explanation of why we can't remember a name sometimes no matter how hard we try: it gets temporarily linked in a given circumstance with something we don't want to remember. I might bury the name "Tom Hanks" for example, if the first memory of it that starts to come up is one of him being interviewed by that TV show guy I hate, and whom I don't want to think about. That sort of thing.
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