A good friend of mine came up to me on Monday with a really bizarre story about her boyfriend. She said she had been meaning to ask me, as a psychology major, if I had any knowledge about the topic. I was very surprised and intrigued to know what this was all about. Shocked, herself, she proceeded with her story: “My boyfriend has this weird thing where he can see faces, but apparently can’t remember the features. I asked him the other day to look at me for a minute, pay attention to every detail possible, and then look away and describe what I look like. He was completely unable to do it. He says he has had this happen to him since he can remember, but he doesn’t know why. Do you know what it is?” I had no idea, but I was captivated, nonetheless, and started asking her all these questions in order to make an educated guess. I had never heard of any condition that sounded at least somewhat familiar to what she was mentioning. I said, it has to be some cognitive dysfunction, perhaps a short-term memory problem. Weirdly enough, that same week, Dr. Rettinger, my cognitive psychology professor, mentioned a cognitive disorder called prosopagnosia— “the inability to remember peoples faces” he said. I was perplexed. How can the world work in such a way? I thought this would make a great meme, and started brainstorming.
A meme is only a picture, so I decided on a gif that could speak a little bit more for itself. In this meme, there are twin brothers taking care of their daughter/niece. Although the little girl does not have prosopagnosia, she is highly confused at the likeness of the faces. She looks back and forth expressing a sense of dissonance and discomfort. I chose this gif because I believe it represented what a prosopagnosic might feel every day of their lives with every encounter they have with any human face. Their inability to recall faces should keep them asking the same question: “do I know you”?
Prosopagnosia is a cognitive disorder otherwise known as face blindness; one of the most extreme forms of behavioral dissociation in humans, so far. As defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary: a form of visual agnosia characterized by an inability to recognize faces. Fortunately for our generation, we have highly advanced technological devices to help us decipher the root to cognitive disorders like this one; in this case CT being of high popularity. Research shows that face blindness is due to a lesion of the central visual system. More specifically, the lesion either destroys a sector within the system or disconnects it from limbic structures. The visual system is very complex. With it including many different aspects such as: object recognition, enhancement, color, etc. The interesting thing about prosopagnosics is that while they are incapable of recognizing faces, their object detection and intellectual functioning is not affected. Weirdly enough, recent cognitive analysis has demonstrated that this impairment isn’t only affecting the ability to recognize faces but also to detect or be alarmed by ambiguous stimuli.
So what can prosopagnosics do? As the first answer to many psychological conditions: therapy. Unfortunately the therapy being used to treat this disorder has demonstrated to be unsuccessful. In contrast, what these people are currently doing, in order to avoid acting like the girl with the twins in the gif above, is play a game: feature-to-feature. This game consists of using secondary clues such as voice recognition, clothing, hair color, etc. to make an educated guess of who the person is.
My knowledge in cognitive psychology is slowly evolving, and the facts given to me by my friend are also not too detailed for me to have a consice answer for her. But if I had to make an educated guess, I would think her boyfriend is prosopagnosic. I am now intrigued to meet this guy.
Can you imagine what it means to be playing a game every minute of your life? Can you imagine how frustrating it can get, at least growing up, to have a blur on peoples faces yet still be able to see everything else? Would you rather be blind or prosopagnosic? While these aren’t easy questions to answer, and can be quite controversial, I believe that putting yourself in someone else shoes can make understanding a situation ten times better.