Some years ago, I wrote about prosopagnosia—also known as face blindness—a condition that affects about 2.5 percent of the population. The gist is that your brain is wired wrong, such that recognizing faces is super difficult. As disabilities go, it’s pretty subtle. Most of the time, the implication is that I’m an annoying person to watch TV with. Game of Thrones is particularly tough, since it seems to feature about 400 filthy men wearing pelts. I’ll ask, “Who’s this guy, now?” and my wife will answer, “That’s one of the dragons.”
The social drawbacks can be more problematic. Like, say, one of your colleagues gets pissed at the office holiday party when you say, “Nice to meet you,” and he’s like, “Yeah, we’ve MET.” That happened in December. And one recent weekend, a friend informed me that one of the local moms thinks I’m mad at her because she saw me in the grocery store and I totally ignored her. “Did you tell her I never recognize anyone?” I pleaded. “Yes,” she said, “But I don’t think she believed me. She might just think you’re a dick.”
This has always been a problem—I once struck up a conversation with a complete stranger on Newbury Street, thinking he was my editor—but I feel like it’s getting worse. So I decided to take a few online tests and quantify the deficiencies of my fusiform gyrus, the part of your brain that deals with faces. First, I took the Cambridge Face Memory Test and scored a 68, which is barely above the clinical threshold for prosopagnosia. Last time I took the test, in 2010, I got a 75. As I suspected: My skills—never very good—might be eroding.
Then I took a test where you identify celebrities by looking at just their faces—no hair, ears or clothes. Right away, I confidently identified George Clooney as Mr. Bean. I mistook Nicole Kidman for Amy Poehler. I thought Susan Sarandon was Hillary Clinton. I’d be a horrible paparazzo. I’d be like, “I just got Justin Bieber passed out in an alley!” and TMZ would say, “No, that’s a pile of Ed Hardy shirts on top of a cardboard cutout of Kevin Federline.” And I’d respond, “What’s the difference?”
As far as solutions, a British optometrist has developed special glasses with light-filtering lenses that are supposed to help you recognize faces. And if you don’t recognize other people, they’ll definitely recognize you, because these glasses are ugly as hell. They look like something the scientists in Stranger Things would have you put on before a trip to the Upside Down.
I also found a website for prosopagnosia-sufferers that lists a bunch of coping strategies, most of which I’ve already learned the hard way. For instance, faking it till you make it, meaning you just act sociable while desperately searching for ID clues. I did this the other day when a guy came up to me at a bowling alley and said, “Hi, Ezra!” and I couldn’t immediately figure out who he was. Eventually, I sidled over behind his lane, stole a glance at his score screen and said, “Good thing I have the bumpers up, MARK!” Lucky for me he’s more mature than I am, because he had his actual name up there instead of something like “Professor Farts.” Bowling setup screen, your seductive temptations usurp my restraint.
There are a few others tricks I use, too. Like, since my holiday party gaffe, I’ve embraced the noncommittal “nice to see you” rather than “nice to meet you.” I’ve been burned too many times by telling people it’s nice to meet them and getting a bunch of attitude in response, like, “We’ve met before,” or “Are you joking, dad?”
Beyond behavioral tricks, there’s now a company with a subscription-based service to help train you to recognize people. But I feel like we’re almost at the point that technology is going to solve everything for me. I just drove a Subaru that can memorize five faces and set your seat and mirrors when it recognizes you. It’s only a matter of time before my phone will somehow know who everyone is and I won’t have to strain my feeble brain, thus consigning face recognition to the Box of Old-Timey Talents, along with the ability to spell multisyllabic words or tolerate 15 seconds of boredom.
Even though I know I suck at recognizing people, I still put myself out there. Last year, I met a woman at the gym named Jen, who might have reason to remember me because at the time I was testing a red Lamborghini. So a couple months ago, I walked over to say hi and she was plainly mystified why I was talking to her. I reminded her how we met, and she became embarrassed and apologetic. “Did you not have a beard then?” she asked. Indeed I did not, but my beard hardly qualifies as a disguise—it hardly qualifies as a beard. This was awesome: The prosopagnosia tables were turned, with me on the side of righteous indignation that anyone could fail to recognize my comely visage. Except, I wasn’t mad. I was happy, because finally this was happening to someone other than me. “It’s OK!” I told her. “I can’t recognize anyone, either!”
“Sorry,” she replied. “Nice to see you.” ◆
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