Imagine if you couldn't recognise a single face. Not your husband's, your child's ‒ or your own: Two women with the condition explain that it's more common than you thinkHaving the condition makes it hard to find and keep friendsCondition caused by an impairment in the brain
One million people in Britain suffer some degree of face blindness, including Duncan Bannatyne and Tom Stoppard
00:54 GMT, 19 September 2012
Sandra O’Connor lives with her 24-year-old daughter Beki and sees her every day of her life — but ask Sandra to describe her child and she has to close her eyes and concentrate hard.
Sandra suffers from an extraordinary and little-known condition called face blindness, which means she has only a blank picture in her mind’s eye of people she knows, even those she is closest to.
She struggles to pick out her husband in a crowd, and couldn’t spot her son recently when she went to meet him at an airport. She doesn’t recognise herself in photographs, and is surprised each time she looks in the mirror.
Sandra O'Connor first realised she was different as a child when she struggled to recognise her classmates
‘I see my features clearly but I don’t perceive the face as a familiar one — as mine. I see an ordinary middle-aged woman staring back at me,’ she says. ‘If I was standing alongside other women looking in the same mirror, I wouldn’t be sure which one was me.’
Sandra is among an estimated one million people in Britain suffering some degree of face blindness, or prosopagnosia. In extreme cases there is no facial recognition whatsoever — in others the impairment is milder. Sandra says she has no friends as a result of her disorder — and no interest in trying to make them any more. ‘People get quite annoyed when I ask their name for the fifth or sixth time, and are offended when I ignore them after we’ve been getting on well,’ she explains.
‘I’m never aware if they blank me back because I haven’t a clue who they are, so now I’ve given up trying. When I turned 50 this year I only got two birthday cards that weren’t from family — both from old colleagues I no longer see. Now I avoid eye contact with people so I can’t be accused of cutting them dead.’
Famous sufferers of prosopagnosia include Dragons’ Den star Duncan Bannatyne and playwright Tom Stoppard.
Psychology lecturer Dr Sarah Bate, from Bournemouth University, recently won funding to start a national centre to study the condition. It is caused by impairment in a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus. Sometimes this is due to neurological damage but more often than not it’s present at birth.
Not knowing what you or other people look like can lead to social anxiety and depression
Dr Bate says: ‘At first we thought prosopagnosia was incredibly rare but after appealing for people to come forward we quickly heard from 700 case studies, all hoping to be tested.
‘We now estimate at least two per cent of the population are face blind to some degree — and it affects women and men equally. But it’s not something GPs will know about, and there’s a huge lack of support and understanding in schools and work places.’
Sandra, who lives near Edinburgh, believes she has always been face blind. ‘When I was seven, I took my class photo home but I couldn’t name a single child in it,’ she says. ‘When I was bullied by girls at school, I reported them to teachers but couldn’t describe them.
‘I was invited to a party only once, but I could swear I never saw the birthday girl again, even though she must have been in my class.
‘Primary school was bad but high school was worse. I spent most of my time trying to find my classroom because I couldn’t recognise the other kids or teachers. I only ever had a few friends, and that was because they always sat in the same place to eat lunch so I knew where to find them.
‘The only time I felt popular was when I used CB radio in the early Eighties. It was perfect — a faceless way to be social. That’s how I met Derek.’
Derek always picked Sandra up from her home at a prearranged time, so she’d know who he was. They were engaged two weeks after meeting — and got married 27 years ago.
Sandra says: ‘Looks aren’t important to me because I can’t remember someone’s face — Derek’s attentiveness to me was what made him attractive to me. He made me laugh and I knew I’d made a best friend for life.’
Derek, who works for a transport company, always wears a scarlet jacket so Sandra can recognise him when they are out, and he warns her discreetly when people she knows are approaching.
He was understanding when she castigated him for talking to an attractive woman in the street — actually their neighbour of ten years.
Beki often wears green so her mum can spot her, and Sandra’s son Josh, 22, makes sure his friends know about her face blindness so they’re not hurt when she ignores them.
‘My family are very protective of me,’ says Sandra. ‘I have pictures of Derek, Josh and Beki all over the house and study them intensely to try to memorise their faces.’
Sandra used to feel racked with guilt about not recognising the people closest to her. ‘But once I was diagnosed, I accepted it was out of my control,’ she says.
She now runs a full-time childminding business from home, looking after four children single-handedly. So how on Earth does she do such a responsible job — that depends on knowing who is in her care
Sandra says her face blindness means she is even more attentive to her wards. ‘I work very hard at memorising the children’s faces by studying their photographs for hours,’ she says. ‘Photographs are crucial for me.
‘I’ve also taught the children to come to me, so for the school pick-up I stand in the same spot in the playground in a red coat so they can spot me easily.’
Her condition means she has to work hard to recognise people by their gait and posture, hair colour and hairstyle, and any distinguishing features such as birthmarks or moles.
Sandra was 40 before she heard of prosopagnosia. A colleague, who’d written a dissertation on the disorder, insisted Sandra was a classic case. ‘It was a pivotal moment,’ recalls Sandra. ‘My colleague was pregnant, so I passed on my tip of leaving a distinctive toy in her baby’s cot in the hospital so she could recognise her child.
‘I thought every new mum did that but she looked at me aghast. She questioned me for a while, and that evening I researched “face blindness” online.
‘I recognised so much of myself in what I was reading, and I felt elated. This problem I had had a name, and other people experienced the same thing. Until then, I’d just thought I was an idiot because I couldn’t remember people.’
Ten years on, however, Sandra’s euphoria has faded. ‘Now I feel there’s nothing I can do about my condition, and I’ve given up trying, she says.
‘Socially I’m never going to get things right, and I live with constant confusion and surges of fear. Hearing those dreaded words “Sandra, aren’t you going to say hello” gives me a sinking feeling.
‘Face blindness is a nasty, isolating condition, and it can have a huge impact on people’s lives.
‘The only plus-side is that it has given me an analytical mind because I’m constantly searching for the body language that marks people out. It’s just a shame my deep empathy can’t develop into friendships.’
Sandra’s ability to read the minutest of mannerisms is common among sufferers. Dr Bate says: ‘In the same way blind people might develop a heightened sense of voice recognition, face-blind people learn to search for clues in body language that help them identify people.
‘One lady learned to recognise people by their wedding rings. To most people, all wedding bands look much the same. But for this woman, an object provided more clues to the person than their face.
‘Face-blind people do see the features of a face but some don’t recognise the finer facial details, such as the fact the eyes might be close together. Others see features but don’t link them together to form a familiar face.’
Not knowing people close to you can be very distressing, of course, and lead to social anxiety and depression.
Some women don’t recognise their own children and have tried to pick up the wrong toddler at nursery: sometimes wives don’t recognise their husbands when they shave off their hair or beard.
Sara Wingman recognises her partner based on his gait as he walks very fast and leans forward
Sara Wingman, 29, a senior business analyst, knows her fianc Stuart Galloway by his gait. She says looks are irrelevant as a means of attraction in her world, because she can’t recognise someone from one meeting to the next. ‘When I met Stuart, what attracted me was his conversation and his intelligence,’ she explains. ‘It wasn’t about his face because my condition means I’d forget it each time.
‘I can recognise him by his gait. He walks very fast and leans forward.
‘Once I like someone or become friends with them, I try to remember them by something other than their face. I’m more attracted to personality. Without that, and an intelligence to match or top my own, there’s no potential.’
Sara, who lives in Cheltenham, cannot bring herself to think about the inherent minefield of social faux pas looming at her wedding next August. In-laws might be ignored, for example, and morning introductions will have been forgotten by the evening reception.
Whenever family members step forward to hug her, Sara hangs back until they speak and she is able to recognise them by their voice.
She was diagnosed in 2010 after tests at London’s Birkbeck University. ‘They were exhausting and I scored terribly, but the diagnosis was reassuring because I could finally tell people that a part of my brain wasn’t working — and I wasn’t just being aloof,’ she says.
‘People at school thought I was stuck-up because I barely acknowledged them. I couldn’t join in girly chats about boy bands because they all looked the same to me.
‘I must have always been face blind, because as a little girl I was distraught when my mum cut her shoulder-length hair to a bob and I couldn’t recognise her.’
At university, Sara was accused of blanking friends in the library when she couldn’t recognise them. She has never been able to watch soap operas or crime shows because she mixes up all the characters.
She says: ‘I’ve posted an explanation of prosopagnosia on my Facebook profile so people don’t think I’m rude for ignoring them. Sometimes when I look at old pictures of myself, they could be of anybody.’
Sara has difficulty making connections with people but has developed finely tuned coping mechanisms. She has an IQ of 150, and her brain is constantly finding ways to compensate for her condition.
Sara gets her work colleagues to personalise their desks so she can tell them apart
‘I learned to identify a colleague by his desk, shirt and complexion — but I was thrown when he moved seats, wore a denim shirt and cut his hair,’ she says.
‘Everyone at work wears photographic name badges so I can recognise them, but if I saw a colleague out shopping at the weekend, I wouldn’t know them.
‘Last year I sold my car to a man who spent 30 minutes inspecting it with me before saying he’d be back to pick up the keys. When he did come back a few days later, I had no idea who he was. I just had to trust I was giving the keys to the same man who’d put more than 10,000 in my account.’
Retired university lecturer Valerie Haden, 65, blames her face blindness for her lifelong lack of self-esteem. For decades, each time she failed to recognise a friend or student, she felt angry with herself.
Social situations were embarrassing, and her lack of confidence led her to marry a ‘totally unsuitable’ man, from whom she is now divorced.
She only realised she had a medical condition, rather than a personality defect, eight years ago. ‘The relief I felt when I read an article about prosopagnosia was immense,’ she says. ‘At last I knew it wasn’t my fault.
‘All through my career I’d stood in a lecture hall of faces that all looked the same, and I felt deeply unhappy at never knowing them.
‘Colleagues thought I was forgiving of the troublemakers, but actually I hadn’t the faintest idea who they were.’
Valerie, who lives in Harlech, North Wales, has now become adept at searching for conversational clues to a person’s identity. She says: ‘Everyone stops and chats in the street here, so I’ve become rather skilled at asking questions as I dig around for triggers.
‘As a child I was a loner — maybe I still am — but I’m lucky that I can recognise my two daughters and my grandchildren.
‘If there’s a spectrum of face blindness, I suppose my condition’s not too bad. But it has caused embarrassment and sadness in my life, and seriously knocked my confidence.
‘My coping mechanism is to smile and say “hello” to everyone: that’s how I cope with prosopagnosia, and that’s how I’ve learned to be happy.’