Hello, I Love You…Who Are You Again?


I never forget a face, but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception. ~Groucho Marx

Remember that episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry is dating a girl, and all he can remember is that her name rhymes with a part of the female anatomy? (It’s also the classic “Junior Mint” episode, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I actually kind of have that same problem. Not with names, mind you…but with faces.

It’s a funny problem with a funny name: prosopagnosia. To me it sounds more like a country invented by Jonathan Swift than a psychological impairment. In a nutshell, prosopagnosia is “face-blindness,” the inability to recognize faces. It is found disproportionately among those on the autism spectrum (like me). Like any condition it ranges in levels of severity. There have been cases such as author Heather Sellers in which the sufferer is unable to recognize even the faces of friends and family members. Thankfully mine isn’t quite so bad, but it’s been an albatross nonetheless.

My family...I think?

People who don’t understand liken this problem to, say, color blindness or dyslexia. It’s not quite the same thing. Face blindness is fickle, just like AS is fickle. What do I mean?

I have the ability to remember faces well if certain criteria are met. In my particular case:

1. The person is someone I see literally every day: at work, at the gym, at the local store.

2. The person has something very distinguishing about his or her appearance: bright pink hair, a Mohawk, a unique pendant. (This explains why I’d never miss Mr. T or Mick Jagger from 500 yards away.)

3. I have strong feelings of either love or hate for the person.

I'd only recognize one of these people

Having worked in mostly customer-oriented jobs throughout my life, this has caused its share of pesky peccadilloes. There were the times I’d walk the book floor and greet the same customers three or four times. (I figured better safe than sorry. They probably figured I suspected them of shoplifting.) There are the regular library patrons who seem offended that I don’t recognize them (after all, I normally help only a few hundred people just like them every day.)Most embarrasingly of all, though, are the people I actually know but don’t see all the time. My cousins, my neighbors, my old friends who live 2,000 miles away. In my case it really is “out of sight, out of mind.”

Has this “little problem” been a hindrance? Yes and no. When I still dated, there were times when I re-created my own version of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Mulva” moment. I guess the guy wasn’t that memorable if I didn’t recognize him. Certainly it’s been a drawback at work, where I’m expected to multi-task and remember crucial information despite my AS. Usually it’s OK. I get by and do my job competently and professionally. I just don’t remember the people. (As my dad says, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t become a doctor.)

Because there’s no cure or treatment for this wonky condition, I can only try and come up with my own solutions. Mnemonic devices like “Rachel with the red hair” seem to work all right, as do sensory associations such as perfumes or sounds. But no matter how hard I try, I’m just not very good at remembering faces. Numbers? Yeah, I do that. Names? I’m passably good. But faces are an enigma.

I tend to agree with Temple Grandin, who suggests that many autistic people, because of their innate fear of eye contact, do not remember most faces well. I also agree that autism forces many of us to filter out what is important or not. Because our senses are so bombarded daily, we simply filter out many of the superfluous details.

I was officially diagnosed with AS a year ago this month. Facial recognition was my lowest score on the diagnostic battery. Am I surprised? Not really. Throughout my life I’ve been too busy studying the patterns of shells and the roar of the ocean and the smell of thunderstorms to really pay much attention to human faces. I get by all right, despite my funny little problem. And I’m not working at McDonald’s or homeless, so I must be doing all right.

I just can’t seem to remember someone I met five minutes ago. Perhaps, and I’m just conjecturing here…that person wasn’t that memorable to begin with.

Don’t forget, P&Q Rangers…there’s still time to vote for your favorite flicks in 33 Films, 33 Years! If you do, you’ll have a chance to win a smashing prize!

As always, if you enjoyed this post, be sure to click “Like” and add us to your blogroll and subscriptions. I promise never to forget your face if you do.

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on February 28, 2012.

7 Responses to “Hello, I Love You…Who Are You Again?”

  1. The condition you are talking about was actually covered in an episode of the documentary series called The Human Face by the BBC hosted by John Cleese and his daughter. They actually go into quite a bit of detail and even have someone talk about their experience. It was pretty interesting to learn.

  2. I’ll have to watch that episode. Thanks for the tip (I’m also convinced the Pythons were all on the autism spectrum.)

  3. Would it help with the people you don’t see often but want to recall to have photos of them with their names and go through them daily? Just a thought.

    When I had a share in a horse, most people at the yard were known by their horse’s name rather than their own 🙂 Either horse people are slightly face blind too or it’s just that the horse names were used more often (Ginger, get off my sodding foot!)

  4. Crap! I have that, too! Oh, man. Oh boy. Thanks for sharing. Interesting. Going back for a second read and then processing.

  5. I don’t have the hate or love part, but a certain feeling or “knowing,” like I want to be around them or don’t.

  6. I have this problem. Dogs I can remember, people no. If anyone asks, here’s my answer: “Grow some fur with markings, human. Then I’ll remember who the hell you are.” 🙂

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