Thursday, November 03, 2016

Sorry, have we met? Adventures in face blindness

Have we met? You look familiar
The New Yorker ran a fascinating story about “super-recognizers,” focusing on a small Scotland Yard team whose skills let them identify suspects among hundreds of faces in the murkiest surveillance videos.

And it included a link to the Cambridge Face Memory Test, one of the tools used to assess officers’ ability to recognize faces. 

The test is about 20 minutes. At the end, you get your result, and this message. “The average score on this test is around 80 per cent correct responses for adult participants. A score of 60 per cent or below may indicate face blindness."

I scored 57 per cent. 

That’s hardly a surprise. I once spotted an acquaintance, a movie reviewer, at a repertory cinema. “Surprising to find you here in the evening, when it’s so similar to your work.” I said. “At least you won’t have to write about it.” I asked about the movie, him being an expert and all, and the entire conversation was based on his work and knowledge of film.

Except he wasn’t the movie critic, but one of his co-workers who looked vaguely like him and and must have struggled tremendously to follow my misdirected comments.

Bumping into another acquaintance at an art opening, I exchanged pleasantries while wondering why he seemed to be cowering in fear. My partner reminded me that I had berated him — with uncharacteristic venom — for an ethical failing a few months earlier. 

And too many times, in my corporate days, I introduced myself to someone at a schmoozing event, only to have him say “yes, I know, you introduced yourself to me 10 minutes ago.”

And those ignore the countless social blunders I never even recognized, and the ones too embarrassing to share.

I was relieved to learn six years ago that I wasn’t just inattentive or indifferent to others when Oliver Sacks wrote about his much more extreme case of prosopagnosia, as it is called, also in the New Yorker.

And it was useful to know that my earlier efforts to learn how to become better at remembering people’s names were doomed. If you don’t remember faces, you certainly can’t put names to them.

I can recognize people if they are part of my life, of course. Context helps tremendously, and so does distinctive appearance or clues like clothing or voices.

And name tags. I wish everyone had to wear name tags, or even better have their names tattooed on their foreheads. That would be a double win, as I could pretend to make eye contact while figuring out who they are.

On the positive side, I’m friendly. When introduced to someone with the common “Do you two know each other?,” I always nod enthusiastically, just in case. I smile at strangers, because they generally look vaguely familiar and might be someone I know. (And because I do believe greeting everyone cheerfully - common in Central America - is preferable to Victorians’ fierce determination to avoid all contact with anyone they encounter. My cheery greetings while walking just seem to alarm people here.)

Some cases of prosopagnosia, following a brain injury or stroke, are fairly easily understood. But the much more common developmental form continues to be mostly a mystery.

It’s hardly a giant disability, especially if you can develop skills to cope.

But our world does value social relationships, those networks of acquaintances and business associates and friends that ease the way through life. And people who can’t recognize people have a much harder time maintaining those loose relationships. And their - our - inability to recognize an acquaintance can seem rude or arrogant.

Sacks notes that up to 10 per cent of people are affected to some degree by face blindness, a rate similar to dyslexia. But, he adds, while we’re aware of the challenges facing dyslexic children, and their strengths, and providing supports, the problems of people with prosopagnosia are ignored.  

It’s not that a big deal for me. (Though, as the researchers note, I have no idea how other people see faces, so maybe it is and I just don't know it.) 

But I’m pretty smart and educated. I had the chance to develop all sorts of coping skills. I’ve figured out how to pretend I recognize people who seem entirely unfamiliar, and decipher identity clues. 

What about people without those advantages? Are they just bewildered and weirdly awkward, with all of the consequences that brings?

Maybe we can talk about this when next we meet. If I recognize you.

3 comments:

Dan said...

I can relate to the face recognition, Paul. I have so much memory loss I am constantly encountering events etc that I have no memory of. Every time my wife says remember when we ......... I have to say no, sorry I have no memory of buying two skylights last year then returning them because we changed our mind. I know sleep apnea can cause memory loss. Maybe that is it. It is unsettling.

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