Do I Have Face Blindness Or Am I Just An A**hole?
Two years ago, I invited a girl I met at a lunch if she wanted to join my netball team. The only problem? She was already playing on it.
That girl is now one of my close friends and we laugh about it, but the memory still brings waves of mortification.
Another time, I went to a friend of a friend's house, and her boyfriend was unexpectedly home. Being a friendly sort of person, I introduced myself, and he gave me this funny look. As it turned out, he was one of my brother's best friends and had spent years hanging out at my family home.
After years of wondering, I finally googled "face blindness" and took a random test I found online. It said I most likely had it. But given the fundamentally dubious nature of random tests found online, I decided to give it a bit more research and answer (my) age-old question: Do I have face blindness, or am I just an asshole?
What is face blindness?
Face blindness, or prosopagnosia, affects about two to three percent of the Australian population, or one in 50 people. It's typically defined as an inability to recognise faces, meaning people who have it use other cues like hair colour, voice or context to put a name to a face.
In serious cases, people can fail to recognise their own spouses or children. Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, who hosts a science show on Triple J, reportedly carries around a desk map with with all of his ABC colleagues and where they sit; his prosopagnosia means he's re-introduced himself to people he's worked with for six months.
The term prosopagnosia was first coined in 1947, but it's only in the last few decades that its been recognised outside of brain trauma, such as a stroke. It's been known to run in families, meaning there's a genetic element of face blindness, but equally it's presented in people with no known family history.
For some, it can be a deeply distressing condition. British man David Fine, whose story was published in the British Medical Journal in 2011, has such strong prosopagnosia that he is frequently unable to recognise his wife, children, or friends.
"I find networking all but impossible, and social situations, from parties to conferences, may cause acute anxiety," Fine said.
I can relate. Not about being unable to recognise my own family -- thankfully, things have never been quite that dire -- but in terms of needing context, particularly with people I don't have a close relationship with. Bumping into acquaintances unexpectedly at the supermarket is my personol kind of nightmare.
I'm also terrible with names, as well. Does that mean I don't have face blindness, and am actually just a really rude person? Could it be forgetfulness? Or caused by mild social anxiety?
Romina Palermo at the University of Western Australia is one of the leading researchers on this subject.
While she was adamant that being good (or bad) with names has nothing to do with face blindness, she did say there was an association between anxiety and an inability to recognise faces. However, it's not known if one causes the other.
"It's entirely possible that if you're more socially anxious, you don't pay as much attention to faces, and so you have trouble recognising them," Palermo told 10 daily.
"But it could happen the other way: you have trouble recognising faces so you get anxious when you're in crowds or with other people, and so you don't look at them."
Initially when people began studying prosopagnosia, people wondered if it was a mild version of autism. But the science hasn't backed that up -- people with autism can have trouble recognising faces, but people can have those same troubles without having autism.
Forgetfulness isn't a big thing here, either.
"It doesn't seem to be a general memory difficulty," Palermo said.
"In terms of general memory, there doesn't seem to be any relationship."
Curiously, she said that some people with prosopagnosia have trouble recognising other similar objects, such as cars.
The penny dropped here because I've had issues recognising cars as long as I've been driving (I have to memorise license plates instead). However, Palermo also said this is a bit of a contentious issue at the moment: the science is not yet in.
So if you think you have face blindness, how are you supposed to figure it out?
Palermo sent me a link to an online test, which was a 15-minute anxiety-inducing exercise in memorising a bunch of faces and picking them out of a line-up.
I mostly got through it by memorising people's eyebrows (straight, angular), their chins (pudgy or not), and in one part of the test, whether they looked like a f*ckboy or serial killer (my apologies to the models).
But when the results came in, I had a score of 55 correct answers out of a possible 72, meaning I was 75 percent accurate.
"That makes you about average -- on this test," Palermo told me.
In fact, I'm a smidge below average, which is 80 percent.
People researchers would consider as having prosopagnosia would score around 50 percent or below, depending on other tests and questionnaires, while someone scoring between 50 and 60 percent are below average, but not prosopagnosic.
The end result of this is: I don't have face blindness. By my own logic, I must be an a**hole.
So to my netball friend, and my brother's childhood friend, and every single other person I've ever re-introduced myself to, I'm really, really sorry.
I have no medical excuse. Just a stone cold bitch.
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