Face-Blind [Oliver Sacks/The New Yorker]

The late Dr. Oliver Sacks describes prosopagnosia – or face-blindness – inability to recognize faces – which he and I share.

Sacks descrbes his faceblindness as merely moderate. Which is interesting because his condition, as he describes it, is significantly more severe than mine. And my faceblindness is often problematic. It often makes social situations and professional networking awkward.

Sacks describes coping mechanisms faceblind people use to compensate, recognizing people by clothing style, hairstyle, facial hair for men, gait, and especially voice. Situational recognition is valuable – I recognize my next door neighbor because he’s a big, bald friendly guy in his 30s who is frequently found in and around the house next door.

On the other hand, when I saw my neighbor in the supermarket parking lot one morning recently, I was not sure it was him, even though we had a lengthy conversation the day before. I thought it might be him – was probably him. So I did what I always do in these situations, which I encounter frequently. I approached with a friendly but neutral expression on my face, and observed him carefully. When I saw he recognized me and he greeted me by name, I recognized his voice and greeted him warmly by name. This is all routine for me, almost automatic.

I think I’m pretty good at reading social cues. As a matter of fact, I think I’m getting better at reading social cues over time, even as I get worse at faces. Or, more likely, I’m becoming more frustrated with my faceblindness.

Sacks says we recognize faces by their features and also by the emotional associations they produce. That is definitely true for me. I am very familiar with seeing people I know as strangers – even people I know very well – even, once or twice, my wife! But I am also familiar with getting a warm, pleasurable rush a short while later when this stranger transforms herself into someone I know and am fond of.

Interestingly, Sacks says faceblindness is strongly correlated with poor sense of direction, and location recognition. He describes an incident where he got lost in his own neighborhood, and failed to recognize his own home after passing it several times. That’s not true for me at all. I think my sense of direction is normal. Not great, but not bad either.