When I was nine or ten years old, my favorite uncle was coming for a visit. On the day he was to arrive, I squirmed through the entire school day, ran the whole way home, and burst in the front door to find him on the couch chatting with my parents. I yelled his name and flung myself in his lap, wrapping my arms around his stiff body. After several seconds, I was confused by him not hugging me back, looked up, stared into his face for what felt like minutes, saw my parents staring at me, then finally looked around the room to find my uncle on the other couch. As I flung myself into his lap, all four of them laughed at me.
This was a particularly humiliating moment, but subtler versions of this situation happen(ed) to me all the time. Outside of school, I rarely would recognize my teachers and classmates. At best, they would look vaguely familiar. When I would look for my mom in a store, I would look for her hair or her shirt, not her. Not just as a kid. I still do this.
I have horror memories of being sat down in front of family photo albums by well-meaning relatives and being asked “Who’s that?” like you do with children, and not being able to answer, although it was a picture of my dad or grandmother or of the person asking me. Pictures often feel disconnected from life to me.
I am still stressed out going to a restaurant or grocery store where it’s possible I might run into someone who knows me, because I probably won’t recognize them. This has happened often, and has lead to many awkward or embarrassing encounters.
Often I will have a vague sense that I know a person, but cannot not even remotely place who they are. It becomes much harder out of the context in which I know them, i.e. not at church, school, or work, but even in context, it only narrows down the range of possibilities of who the person in front of me could be; I don’t actually recognize anyone any easier.
When I do place someone, however, everything else I know about them comes rushing back. Conversations we have had and things they have done and everything else. I have no problem remembering who people are, just recognizing them.
I have lots of tricks to recognize people, like remembering the clothes they usually wear, their hair style, glasses, a necklace or bag that they often have with them, or I’ll fish for clues in a conversation to figure out who someone is. (To those who have a small and consistent wardrobe, bless you!) But if someone gets a haircut, it might take me longer than normal to figure out not just that they cut their hair, but who they are.
It’s like trying to tell apart identical twins. Even though you might know the family for years, if you don’t spend an inordinate amount of time with both twins, and learn those subtle differences to tell them apart, you might still mix them up or be anxious that you might mix them up. It’s just that this is my experience with the majority of people, even when people don’t look much alike at all.
I even have issues recognizing myself. I’ve never had a mirror in my bedroom, and don’t like looking at them in the bathroom. It’s not that I don’t like what I look like, it is that I have the unnerving experience of looking at my reflection and feeling like a stranger is staring back at me.
A few years after college, I was listening to a podcast about a man who had prosopagnosia—face blindness—and realized for the first time that it wasn’t just me. Other people have this experience, it is a recognized and diagnosable condition, and it goes well beyond just being bad with faces. The man on the podcast had it even worse than I did.
In that podcast, I learned that there is a specific region of the brain for facial recognition, the fusiform gyrus, and that for this man, and me, it had never fully developed. Prosopagnosia is much more common among people with autism than in the general public, though is by no means exclusive to autism.
Naturally, this has contributed a lot to my social anxieties. (Not that I don’t have enough other reasons for social anxieties, and they all fed on each other.)
Strangely enough, people don’t like being mistaken for other people, or not being remembered, but since I can’t help that, I’ve gotten into lots of awkward and embarrassing situations, so I’ve tended to avoid situations that could lead to such encounters, which is just about anywhere with people, but avoiding people entirely is unrealistic (and undesirable), hence the anxiety.
After learning about this condition from the podcast, and doing more reading on my own, I made a few attempts to “accept myself” and be upfront with someone about my condition, all of which went very, very badly.
So, I went back to muddling along.
From an early age, I got a reputation for being shy, but I often wouldn’t be holding back because I was shy exactly, but because I would be waiting for someone else to mention each person’s name to know who they were. At a family gathering, for example, where everyone knows each other and calls each other “mom” or “auntie” or nothing at all, that could often take a while. I had all sorts of tricks to fish names out of conversations, or to skirt the matter entirely. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t.
What else works? If I know someone well, I’ll often recognize them from a distance by their body shape and their gait more easily than when they are right by me.
And voice. More than anything, I’ll recognize someone by their voice. Actors, for example, change clothes and hair styles so much, that I almost never can keep track of them. There are only a handful of actors (mostly Star Trek regulars) that I can recognize on sight. But when watching a movie, I will often recognize a voice and need to close my eyes and just listen, to the lilts and trembles, to how they pronounce a particular vowel or word or how they bark in anger, until I can place where I’ve heard that voice before. (In real life, people find this rude. Such a shame.)
On the topic of actors, if two or more characters in a movie or TV show have a similar build, haircut, and skin tone, I won’t be able to tell them apart so I keep getting characters mixed up and loose track of the plot and find that deeply frustrating. Especially that one character, the “fit, white, 20-30-somthing man with a crew cut.” That guy plays far too many characters in far too many TV shows and movies.
But lately something has been changing.
Just in the last couple of months, I have noticed that I am starting to recognize expressions on peoples faces more, even noticing that their moods are reflected in their faces and I’m beginning to be able to tell better what those moods are.
That is probably a duh-statement. Of course moods are reflected in people’s faces. But honestly, I didn’t catch this. Or I didn’t attach meaning to it, anyway.
I want to clarify something here. Face blindness is not having a blind spot when looking at someone’s face. My visual acuity was very good, the face just held very little meaning for me, and I would not be able to remember what a person’s face looked like when I turned away.
I can literally stare at the face of someone whom I have known well for years, and then close my eyes and not be able to picture their face at all. Right now I am trying to visualize my mother’s face and I can distinctly remember her hair, her clothes, how she sits in her favorite chair, how she moves, and every little detail except her face, which is a vague, not-quite-there thing.
This is highly unusual. Facial recognition and facial memory is hardwired into most people’s brains from birth, and very few (about 2.5%) of people have any difficulty with this.
Just recently, right around the time I arrived back in Santa Fe in September, I started noticing that I could recognize people again after only seeing them once or twice before. Not just that sense of vague familiarity, but actually being able to remember who someone is on sight. It’s work, like dredging up an old memory, but I can do it.
And I’m beginning to tell people apart that I knew at church but didn’t know well, and had often mixed up with other people who have similar heights, builds, and skin tones.
Now when I’m looking at someone’s face it seems like it has more dimensions somehow. It’s like I can actually notice their expressions and that they are starting to mean something.
Then last night I was watching a TED talk by Shawn Achor that I’ve seen probably a dozen times, and the speaker suddenly looked different to me. It was like I could see his face clearly for the first time. I started ignoring what he was saying and just watched him for the rest of the talk, and it was as if his face became 3-D for the first time ever as I was watching, like he became more and more real over the course of the 12 minutes.
It was then that I realized clearly—not just a vague feeling under the surface—that lately I have actually been noticing facial features more. I have been noticing expressions and recognizing meaning in those expressions.
I even started noticing his micro expressions. For example, just before he told a joke, his face would look like it was about to laugh for just a split second, but he controlled his expression and then told the joke. I’ve read about micro expressions but haven’t been able to pick them out before.
Afterwards I looked up his bio on Ted.com and saw the picture of him there, and it actually, surprisingly, looked like the person I had just seen give the talk, which has not been my usual experience.
I watched another talk and could see that woman’s face in a new way, too. It was like there was more face to see. And when I’ve been interacting with people today, I’m seeing more of them. It’s like faces are three dimensional, or like I am actually seeing faces for the first time in my entire life.
I think that my brain is actually beginning to wire itself in new ways. That the part of my brain that should have been wired from birth for facial recognition was never fully developed, and that brand new connections are finally, unexpectedly, forming.
It is possible for the brain to rewire itself, to create new connections, to actually change the physical structure of the brain, and I’ve heard a few stories of extreme neuroplasticity like this, but I never expected anything like this to happen to me.
This isn’t about how the brain changes itself when learning something new, or how it can heal from a stroke, trauma, or old emotional wounds.
This is actually new dendritic growth. And grace. Heaps of grace.
I don’t want to put expectations on how far this will go. I’m still not remembering faces at all, but I am recognizing them more and “seeing” expressions and attaching meaning to them. This is an amazing new world and an incredible blessing.
I am crying as I write this because it is fantastic and wonderful and I am thankful for this incredible gift.
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