Facial Blindness and What that Means

You may be surprised how much you recognize.

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(source)

First let me tell you a ghost story:

Having finished work and a few errands quite late, a man is walking home on a summer’s night. It’s warm enough that he doesn’t need his coat and still light enough that he decides to take a detour through a local park and enjoy the scenery. As dusk falls he approaches a stream which transects his footpath. The area is well planted with flowers, shrubbery and just on the other side of the water over the bridge a weeping willow whose leaves trail down to brush the railing. The lightning bugs are just coming out and flitting around him and he notices that, well represented as the botany may be there are no irises.

At first he doesn’t see her. But when he takes his first step onto the bridge he notices the elegant figure of a young woman leaning her body against the railing of the bridge. Long strands of shimmering black hair fall before her face, but she’s turned away from him just slightly. He’s a bit surprised as he had no idea she was there before he set foot on the bridge, but as she is so still he imagines the tranquillity of her figure is what made her blend into this natural world of twilight.

He moves slowly forward hoping not to disturb her as he passes. The water is flowing beneath them and he almost imagines he can see concentric rings rippling outward just below her as she stands head just over the railing. Over the night sounds of crickets and frogs he hears the slight inhale of breath and the lightest of sobs.

She’s crying.

She looks to be just about the age of his little sister and he wonders if maybe she had a bad argument with her boyfriend or lost her job or could just use a friend like now.

Tentatively he approaches. “Miss?” he calls out gently, “Miss, are you alright?”

She doesn’t respond. Her face remains turned just slightly from him and aside from a slight shuddering in her shoulders she is completely still.

He tries again, “Would you like to talk about it? Or anything really?” She sniffs lightly and the failing light of the evening catches on her hair. “I think there’s a food stand at the entrance of this park. Can I treat you?”

At last she speaks. “No,” she whispers a little raggedly, “thank you, I’m fine. I’ve just had a bad day.”

He shuffles, uncertain of whether he can just leave her here. “Are you sure? I’ve had a long day perhaps we could commiserate.”

She lifts her head and giggles faintly, her long beautiful hair slowly falling away from her face. “Aren’t you a kind young man,” she says in a tone older than she looks. At last, she draws herself up straight and turns fully towards him.

He gasps in surprise and horror falling back towards the other side of the narrow footbridge very nearly losing his footing entirety. He wants to run but he also cannot believe what he’s seeing. Calmly she turns towards him. Her body is slender but toned. Her clothes are tasteful and kempt. Her hair is styled but not ostentatious. She should be beautiful. She tilts her head “What’s wrong?” and her voice sounds as if she would have a mocking expression. But where her sardonic smile, arched brows, and flared nostrils should have been there was nothing but light featureless skin.

Again he stumbles, but this time he runs. He runs from the bridge and towards where he knows the food stand will be all the while aware of her eyeless gaze on his back. She won’t be chasing. He knows she won’t follow. But why he knows, he couldn’t say.

Cold sweat soaks through his dress shirt as the little stand comes into view well illuminated in the dusk by a nearby streetlamp. He can’t see any customers but hopes it’s not closed. He needs to tell someone what he saw. Still sprinting in a chaotic panic by the time he reaches the counter he nearly collapses into one of the steel swivelling bar stools. Out of breath and still in a state of feverish disbelief he tries to order his thoughts.

To his relief the shopkeeper is still present, “hey man, wow,” he says. Then he chuckles, “you look like you’ve seen a ghost. I was just closing up but can I get you something?”

Retrieving with a shaking hand a small handkercheif from his pocket the young man wipes persperation from his forehead and breathing deeply tries to calm himself. “Yes, uh yeah,” he pauses and the shopkeeper waits patiently, “a coffee, um, a latte. Yes. A latte, please if the machine’s still on.”

“You got it,” the shopkeeper replies jovially turning to prepare the drink. “Although you might want decaf,” he jests as he works.

The young man still shaken fishes for his wallet.

“So, what had you tearing out of the park like that at this hour? You’re not dressed for a jog,” he asks frothing the milk, back still turned.

“Uh yeah, no,” the man starts, unsure of how to explain what happened. “There was this young woman, very beautiful …”

“Oh really?”

“No, not like that. She was crying. So I offered to … well I offered to bring her here and buy her a coffee.”

“Well that’s nice of you. Always happy to sell another drink. Do you want cinnamon on this?”

“No, thank you. Anyways …” he pauses unsure how to explain it. The shopkeeper seems almost finished with his latte remaining with his back turned and the young man has placed coins in the little tray next to the cash register ready to be rung up. Finally, he just spits it out, “she had no face.”

Still turned away the shopkeeper exclaims in a low voice, “wow, no face, huh?” He picks up the finished cup of coffee in one hand placing it on the counter only glancing obliquely at the man who is absorbed in horrified reminiscences. He removes the tin milk pitcher from the espresso machine placing it to the side of the sink. Then he turns, pulls down his mask, and points to his own face, “so kinda like this, huh?”

This time the young man does fall. He falls off the stool and onto the pavement. Scrambling up he does not even dare look back. He just runs away leaving the coffee and the money for the coffee and the strange faceless shopkeeper behind.

Our intrepid hero gets away just fine because the ghost he encountered — twice — in this story is a noppera-bo or “faceless ghost.” These are Japanese ghosts or spirits which appear in liminal spaces and warn or scare away humans from places they should not be. In fact, this entire story is just my little retelling of a classic traditional tale. I think in the original the vender is selling ramen rather than coffee, and everyone would be dressed a bit differently, but other than that it is more or less the same story.

For most people, encountering an otherwise perfectly normal person who just doesn’t have a face would apparently be deeply uncanny. For me though, noppera-bo are just not all that weird.

Before I go on I do want to make a distinction. “Facial blindness,” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not like I’m walking around thinking everyone around me is lacking a face like a true noppera-bo. I can see the features on their face, I just can’t make any sense of them.

For me, I can see that people have — generally — a pair of eyes with eyebrows, a nose, and a mouth. That bit is fine. I just can’t see any difference between those features in different people.

At one point I witnessed a crime (it was super minor, but it was also racially motivated so I wanted to take it pretty seriously) and fortunately was able to get video of it. The police came and spoke to me and I gave them the copies of the video thinking that would be the end of it. Maybe I’d have to testify as to why I’d taken the video and intervened but I thought it would be no big deal.

But then they told me I would have to describe the suspect.

This is when I learned something really incredible about facial blindness. I couldn’t recognize that guy out of a line up if they’d needed me to, but when they asked me to describe him I could tell them the angle of his eyes, the position of his nose bridge and mouth, his approximate age, height and weight, his skeletal structure, everything. And all without bias or inflection.

And yet when I go to meet my partner of eight years for a date he has to let me smell him before I’m sure it’s him. I mistook my own father who I lived with for eighteen years for a Japanese business man and actually spoke Japanese to him. I mistook a teenager of a similar build for my brother at a water park. A friend I’ve worked in lab with for years came to my place of work to get a book and had to remind me who she was. Even my mom who stood 5'11" and had long red hair I could not recognize if her hair was obscured.

My worst nightmare was when my neighbour asked me to pick up his little daughter at school for him. There I was standing with the parents as they brought the kids out knowing that I would never be able to recognize this little girl who I routinely look after and worrying that she’d think I had abandoned her or that the parents might think I was trying to kidnap one of the kids. Fortunately, she recognized me and ran up to hug me, so it was fine.

So what the hell is going on?

Without getting too detailed in part because I’m not a neurologist and in part because that is not the point of this article, facial blindness is more properly termed prosopagnosia. Supposedly it is usually due to some defect — and this can be developmental, pathological, or traumatic — to the right fusiform gyrus. It is associated with autism spectrum disorders which I suspect I have (but am unwilling to seek diagnosis for because of how it could impact my civil liberties), and many people with prosopagnosia or facial blindness do not know they have it.

I’m not a complete disaster. My mom was very distinctive in that she was rather tall and had red hair. So I could usually find traits I could use to recognize people. Now, especially because I know this is my reality, I try to pick out something distinctive about everyone I meet. People have very distinct smells which helps. I can identify them by their accent and the timbre and pitch of their voice. I will often use clothes or a person’s gait. But the single best way for me to recognize people is by their hair.

Hair, for much of my childhood, was how I determined who people were.

Ever hear the expression, “oh you changed your hair! I almost didn’t know you!” So, hair works for convincing the normies I’m one of them … until one of them goes and cuts his or her hair. And I didn’t realize what a big deal it was until I cut my own hair for the first time. I used to get mad at my friends when they cut their hair. I’d never tell them I was mad at them but I always felt betrayed. As if they had done it to intentionally spite me. I didn’t understand at the time that normal people do cut their hair and that normal people also don’t rely on it to recognize one another. I know that sounds bonkers, but this is part of explaining any perceptual difference.

I knew that hair could be associated with beauty and with style and that sometimes people lose it due to baldness or illness. I could handle people going grey or white haired because that is a natural process. Your hair or lack thereof is part of your body and how you choose to wear it is part of your identity. But the idea of someone dying their hair or cutting it drastically was always difficult for me to understand. Initially I thought it was because I’m a redhead — and not just a redhead but a redhead who can be described as auburn.

But after my mother passed away I thought a good gesture to her memory would be to donate my hair for children’s wigs. At that point my hair reached well past my butt, and was very healthy and strong. So I had it cut and I donated it. And then I went home and found a stranger staring back at me from the mirror.

I figured out I had facial blindness a few years prior to this, but I hadn’t realized that cutting my hair would have this much of a profound effect on my identity. I do not recognize myself in the mirror anymore. Cognitively I know it’s me, but I don’t understand what I look like.

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Self-Portraits in Elder Scrolls Online. I think I most resemble the two on the right.

The above picture is sort of my own personal joke. I — despite the continued issues with the servers — really like this game. But all my characters are given some hidden joke name (for example, the necromancer is named “Tibia Innominate,” which is actually two jokes for the price of one,) and modelled after what I think I look like. Now … they’re all different in-game “races” so that could account for some of the differences, but to be honest, to me it was an exercise in figuring out how to make faces work. (And yes, that is a magika Imperial Dragonknight. Shut up.)

Normal people looking at a face see it as a unit. I see the parts, but I don’t associate them as a whole. So when other people look someone in the face that is what they are doing, but when I do it I’m looking at a specific part of a person’s face. This makes eye contact super weird for me and now — once again to disguise the fact that I’m a weirdo — at interviews and in meetings I will switch which eye I’m looking at on a person count to a given number, switch again, count, glance at the desk, look at another person quickly and then back to the speaker rinse and repeat. I do this because I know normies need eye contact, but to me it’s really weird and distracting.

I’m not mad at you if you’re normal; you can’t help being normal anymore than I can help being weird. But it’s easier to trick you into believing I’m one of you rather than explaining how neurologically upsetting I find your face.

People tend to get a bit upset when I don’t recognize them because for normal people recognition of faces is a big part of social interaction. That’s obviously a pretty huge problem for me. What I typically do is tell people at the first encounter that I have this issue and if I’m giving them incorrect social cues the best way around it is to remind me who they are and where we usually interact. Some people are fine with this and at a mixer for example will just say, “Hi Ari, I’m Jo from lab,” at which point I can get a read on their clothes and hair and I will know who they are for the rest of the evening.

Other people think I’m just being lazy. I’m not. Again, I mistook my father for a lost Japanese businessman.

Here’s where things get real weird. Facial blindness is not that rare. I sort of did a caveat when I briefly explained how it works neurologically, because the accepted understanding of it does sound like you had to get your skull trephined to have it. It’s a bit dramatic. But I had no idea that other people did not perceive the world with the same bumbling social inefficiency that I do.

I’ve explained this to a lot of people, and typically when I do I get one of two responses. Probably a majority of people go, “oh wow that’s trippy, tell me more.” But a substantial minority go, “huh, I do that as well …” And then there’s a whole different class of people who can recognize people they’ve only seen in passing from odd and disparate angles. If you’re such a person, the CIA wants you to work for them.

It is entirely possible if you consider yourself, “not great with faces,” you may actually have some level of facial blindness.

There’s a few associated symptoms with this. I mentioned autism before, but people like me also can have difficulty telling animals apart and have trouble navigating city streets. I have no issue with animals because to my mind individual non-human animals within a species are more distinct than humans, but I couldn’t navigate my way out of a wet paper bag. Conversely, if you drop me in the middle of the wilderness with a topographical map and maybe a compass I’ll be out of there in record time. I only have issues with navigation when there’s streets involved.

As with anything else, there’s trade-offs. I can describe faces really well, but I can’t recognize members of my own family. There’s a moment cognitively when I finally recognize someone where they sort of snap into place. It’s a little jarring because the neurological feeling you get when you see someone you know regardless of whether or not you like them hits me well after I’ve been standing right in front of them and I have to cover for it. This makes me just incredibly socially awkward.

But of course now that everyone has to walk around wearing masks I’m much better at recognizing people than everyone else. It got dangerously awkward when I crossed a border because they needed me to take off my mask to be recognized and I thought that was a bit silly, but other than that I’ve been experiencing the world in the way that I think normal people do simply because I use different cues to identify people than normal humans do.

If you recognize yourself in this perhaps you’re a weirdo like me. But if you don’t, no worries. For some people this is a major issue which effects their day to day life and in those cases I recommend compassion, but for me it’s not a big deal. I’ve found work arounds and I am at a point in my life where I generally treat everyone I meet in person kindly just in case (although I can be pretty mean online), I generally tell people I have this problem with faces, and if someone is insulted after I tell them why I don’t recognize them then I figure I’m better off without them and promptly peace out.

To me it’s an oddity that you normies don’t use smell and hair to identify one another so I hope you’ve enjoyed a little lifting of the lid on prosopagnosia.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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