A rare condition makes it impossible for this woman to recognise faces

  • Face blindness is a cognitive disorder that is inherited, or can happen as a result of brain trauma 
  • People living with the condition have to rely on other clues to recognise people
  • There is no cure, but certain strategies can help one to cope with the condition

Imagine living with a condition where your brain does not recognise people’s faces, including your own.

Prosopagnosia, or "face blindness" as it’s more commonly known, is a cognitive condition characterised by the inability to recognise other people by their faces alone, and has major effects on the well-being of sufferers. But the condition has given one woman a special sense of purpose as an artist.

Carlotta* (not her real name) told the BBC that she makes self-portraits of the faces she cannot picture in her mind. When sketching a self-portrait, she doesn’t use a mirror or photograph. Instead, she uses her one hand to trace the contours of her face, and her other hand to sketch the shapes on paper.

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Eines meiner Lieblingsbilder....

A post shared by Carlotta Himself (@carlottahimself) on

Carlotta, who grew up in Munich, Germany, said that her condition began to cause problems in the 1960s, when she was a young girl, but that because face blindness was unheard of, her schooling career was a “brutal and horrible experience”.

Teachers would often scold her and become angry that she didn’t recognise their faces. So she relied on other clues, such as the clothes people wore, the way they walked, and whether they wore spectacles.

The two types of face blindness

According to the NHS, there are two types of prosopagnosia: developmental prosopagnosia and acquired prosopagnosia. The former happens without any experience of brain damage, whereas acquired prosopagnosia occurs after brain damage, often following a stroke or head injury.

In Carlotta’s case, it was genetic, which she discovered only after the age of 40, and quite incidentally, when flicking through a magazine at the pharmacy. Carlotta, who was adopted, had a conversation with her birth mother during this time and found out that she, too, was living with the same condition.

The NHS also indicates that studies have shown that as many as one in 50 people may have developmental prosopagnosia, which equates to about 1.5 million people in the UK

Inability to recognise places and objects also possible

Prosopagnosia can affect a person's ability to recognise objects, such as places or cars, but Carlotta explained to the BBC that her condition is quite specific to humans. “The faces of animals or aliens I find very easy to recognise," she said.

Dr Brad Duchaine, a cognitive neuroscientist at Dartmouth College, whose main interest is understanding the main organisations of the "normal" brain, told VOA News in 2018 that faces are processed by different mechanisms in the brain and is especially dependent on the right temporal lobe.

Marie-Luise Kieseler, also involved in research on prosopagnosia at Dartmouth College told VOA News: “They are missing certain parts of the brain, or they have damaged certain parts of the brain where we see that in the MRI scans, and so if the parts are not there, it can’t act on anything,” she explained.

According to an article by the Scientific American, research shows that some people suffer from face blindness for other races, also known as “own-race bias”, in that they are completely blind to features that make other-race faces distinct.

One study based on this was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. An older, local study was published in 2003 in Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. The authors of this study suggested that such misidentification can, in some cases, lead to innocent people being convicted.  

Relying on unique characteristics

Like Carlotta, other people living with face blindness have also relied on certain clues to make their condition less frustrating to live with.

“I’ve sometimes had the experience of apologising to someone, and realising it’s a mirror... I could see that it was a large clumsy man with a beard,” British neurologist Oliver Wolf Sacks told CBS during a 2012 interview.

“I’ve now found a way of dealing with this; I have one special feature – I have rather large ears, and if the large clumsy man with a beard has extra large ears, it’s probably me,” Sacks commented, saying that “these things are both comic and serious”. Sacks wrote about the condition in his book The Mind’s Eye and is notable for successfully coping with the condition.

No cure, but training programmes helpful

People living with the condition have difficulty forming relationships and may avoid social interaction, develop an overwhelming fear of social situations, notes the NHS. Sometimes the condition can lead to depression.

Although there is currently no cure for prosopagnosia, there are training programmes that focus on the development of skills to help recognise faces better, such as, in Carlotta and Sacks’ case, attending to cues like unique physical characteristics or voice.

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