Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Face Blind

I don’t see faces.

Well, I can see them, but not in the same way as you do.

As a seven year old, I spent an inordinate amount of time retreating into my thoughts, bumbling my way through awkward social interaction, and somehow irritating everyone I encountered without ever intending to. As a result, I wasn’t considered the coolest 40 cent Paddle Pop in the tuckshop freezer.

My experience of childhood face blindness is represented by a lone memory. On the afternoon in question, I held my mum’s hand to cross the road after school. As we waited, I could feel the sun’s heat on my black leather school shoes which, on my mother’s ill-informed insistence, were about as cringe worthy as my individually initialled retractable crayon set. As we waited for a break in traffic, I heard someone call out my name. I looked around me for a familiar face but, recognising no one, dismissed the call as a misheard “Brendan” or “Breanna”. I went back to wiping the sticky hibiscus sap from my fingers onto my blue and gold spray jacket. My mum got me into trouble for ignoring what, to her eyes, seemed to be a friend of mine calling out from a car window and being rudely ignored.

My first realisation of face blindness was decidedly more significant. I sat in the morning sun in my front doorway, eyes closed, skin prickling with the cool breeze, dozing in and out of a smoke-induced haze while Dr Karl spread his infinite wisdom through the radio. He began talking about a condition called Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which he’d suffered from his whole life. Suddenly I was snapped into sobriety as the name of this eerily familiar condition etched itself forever into the slate of my mind. As he spoke, I travelled through a montage of realisation – that’s why I thought the two new girls in year 8 were the same person - it puzzled me that the blonde new girl only had an Irish accent half the time. That’s why I was forever stuck in embarrassing situations where I had no idea who I was speaking to, although they obviously knew me quite well. Or why I found it nearly impossible to follow films, why I was constantly introducing myself to people that assured me we already knew each other, why I would obsessively photograph everyone I met at parties so I could learn their face afterwards, and why meeting up with someone in a public place spurred on a sickening anxiety that no one else seemed to experience. Two weeks later ABC’s Catalyst had a user-friendly story on face blindness, and the ensuing online tests confirmed that I had a distinct problem with facial recognition.

People don’t understand. And why should they? If they’ve met me several times, spent nights in long conversation, then met up for coffees and group gallery outings only to be completely ignored or offered a wan smile at our next meeting, they have every right to feel offended and confused. Attempts to explain my condition are often frustratingly misread; people counteract my apologetic and inadequate excuse of “I’m bad with faces,” with the oft-cited “I’m bad with names”. To have my daily struggle trivialised and dismissed so easily makes me want to retreat to the safety of my closest and more recognisable friends, and remain in that warm comfort zone where I no longer have to walk around avoiding eye contact at the risk of offending someone else.

I’ve noticed patterns: Most of my friends are weird looking, by normal standards. Tattoos, dread locks, coloured hair, piercings, and a distinctive face, voice, or style (or, some would say, lack thereof). Their oddities allow me to remember them on our second, third and fourth meetings, so the friendship is allowed to form without anyone getting offended.

I’ve adapted strategies: If I study a face in 2D or photographic form, it helps with recall. If I paint or draw a portrait, I can recognise the face easier. Face Blindness sufferers recognise people not by their face (an instantaneous and effortless system for most), but by consciously remembering someone’s hair, body language or voice. If it were up to me, it would be mandatory for all people to wear a name tag, and to never change their hair style, or for that matter the shirt they wore the night I first met them. Vote 1: Brenna Quinlan for president.

I’ve created analogies: They say that in a bucket of pebbles, all will be different, but our brains aren’t equipped to recognise those subtle differences. Even if you tried, you couldn’t recognise all of the pebbles. We can only recognise faces so well because we have evolved a part in our brain dedicated to this vital skill. In some people, this doesn’t work so well. For me, looking at a face in depth is like saying a common word over and over until it loses meaning. The harder I study a face, the less it looks like the person I know, and the more it creeps toward something distorted and disturbingly unfamiliar. For this reason, no amount of effort makes recognition easier. Furthermore, like a tomato left in the fridge, my ability to recognise someone decays after a few months without contact.

When my mum was growing up, people thought she was slow because she had trouble reading. She grew up thinking there was something vastly wrong with her intelligence, a self-image that still affects her today. Now, however, people understand dyslexia, and no child is told they are stupid because they get things confused. I hope that when my children are growing up, prosopagnosia will be a recognised and understood phenomenon that sufferers needn’t feel shame about.

Did you know Oliver Sacks and John Close are face blind? I only heard this after I wrote this blog. Very interesting parallels:

1 comment:

  1. Hi Brenna,

    Thanks for sharing your experience with face-blindness. I was first introduced to the condition whilst listening to RadioLab in my car on the way to school. Now i find myself quoting you and RadioLab in a short paper of prosopagnosia for my Brain and Behavior class:)