Sunday, February 11, 2007

When No Face is Familiar

tidbits that tantalize

Through A

Glass Darkly...

The oft-quoted refrain of the innocent, "It happens to all of us," echoing about your brain brings not an ounce of comfort. Why should it? You really don't care about the humiliation of others at this point - honestly, there could be a million people simultaneously experiencing the same lapse of memory and it would not lessen your embarrassment one scintilla.

All you know is that your leisurely stroll through the mall has brought you face to face with someone whose face you can't begin to place. You stammer and stutter, hoping the extra few seconds you buy will somehow unlock the reinforced steel doors that safeguard your memories.

"Mom! I swear - sometimes I feel like an orphan!"

Ah - now you get it. It was your daughter all along. You should have known. Maybe it was the new haircut, or the new coat, or...


A fascinating neurological condition, those who suffer from prosopagnosia have an inability to recognize faces. Some cases develop following a head trauma or stroke, while others are congenital. In severe cases, people may not even recognize themselves in the mirror. So, in the above scenario, what may have played out differently in reality? Possibly, depending upon the noise level, very little.

Those suffering prosopagnosia learn to adopt compensatory strategies to help them identify others. Hairstyle, height and weight, glasses, tone of voice and other characteristics are used in much the same manner as sight. These are often sufficient to help them unravel enough clues to correctly guess identities. But, if the noise level is high, or the setting unfamiliar, even these clues may fall short and leave the person in the embarrassing situation of talking to an "intimate stranger."

What's to be done?

Research is ongoing, but no breakthroughs are forthcoming. In the interim, safety and social issues are best addressed with a combination of compensatory strategies and a strong circle of support from family, friends and community.

As to the issue of not recognizing your daughter in the mall? Well, considering the latest hairstyles and clothing trends, there are days you may consider that to be one of life's simple joys...

To read more about prosopagnosia, see this from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.


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