I’m Not A Bitch, I’ve Got Prosopagnosia

November 5, 2013
By

prosopagnosia; facial blindnessThe other day I was checking out at the hair salon next to a woman with beautiful gray hair.  “I recognize you,” she said, giving me a warm, generous smile.

I smiled back—it was one of those awkward moments, causing me to force the smile that I use for the outside world, when on the inside I am thinking, “oh shit, here we go again.”

“….Of course,” I said, lying through my teeth, keeping the smile plastered on my face, “how are you?”

“…We met last year…” she went on, clearly trying to help me out.  She reminded me of her name— which did indeed sound familiar.

“Of course,” I lied.  But my eyes betrayed my smile; I had the deer in the headlights look.

She saw right through me.  “…You and your husband made us dinner at your home…”

Busted.

Luckily, for me, this lovely woman was kind enough to spare me the embarrassment of stating the obvious: “you have no frigging idea who I am, do you?”  But I have no doubt that the woman left the salon thinking, “What a bitch.”

Because it’s one thing to not remember someone you have met briefly once before, but when you have sat at the dinner table and broken bread with someone at your home, when you have engaged in meaningful conversation, it brings it to a whole new level of rude.   The fact is, when you don’t remember someone you have met before, you are sending a message:  I don’t give a shit about you.

But the truth is, I do give a shit.  People are important to me, and I’m not a bitch.  I just don’t recognize faces very well.

I’ve known I’ve had a problem for a while.  When the kids were little, I would ask who the brunette was singing on the  TV. “Mom, are you kidding me?  That’s Britney Spears! Don’t you recognize her?”

“But Britney has blond hair!”  I would respond.  When a star changed the color of her hair, gained or lost weight, or tried on a whole new look, I was clueless.  Lady Gaga, who sometimes came out as a donut and sometimes a green leafy vegetable, was a lost cause.

I always assumed I had a mild case of “prosopagnosia,” a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces (the term prosopagnosia comes from the Greek words for “face” and “lack of knowledge.”) I didn’t think I had a bad case:  I always recognized my mother, the kids (even when they were dressed for Halloween), the cousins, my friends, most acquaintances, the dog, my hat. I just had difficulty recognizing faces that I have only met once or twice…or maybe thrice.   But like so many things that get more pronounced as I get older–my facial lines, my neuroses, my stunning sense of humor (ha!)– the facial blindness thing is really starting to cramp my style.

Again this past weekend, I found myself in my own personal hell:  behind the registration desk at a lady’s luncheon, wearing my name tag, helping women I am supposed to know at the check-in desk find their name tags.  I should have known better. It was not pretty. “Ronna, how are you, and how are your kids?” a woman greeted me, smiling.  I smiled back, a bit angry at the unfair advantage she had, but the panic was taking hold as I looked down at the name tags, realizing that one that was not going to jump out and claim her.  There was a moment of awkwardness.

“uh…..how do you spell your last name?”  I asked quietly, and I could just about see her thinking:  ”is she an idiot?” But here is what she said out loud:

“C-O-H-E-N.”

Beam me up, Scotty.

Exhausted from the tension of registration, I collapsed at my table, and confessed to my friend about the misery of the registration desk.  I was happy to see that my table was filled with friends.  All except for one person I didn’t recognize at all.

“Who is sitting next to you?” I asked my friend, indicating the lovely blond next to her.  “She’s the only one I don’t know. Can you introduce me?”

And so she made the introductions.

“We’ve met a few times before,” the woman informed me flatly.  “I sat next to you at Lisa’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.  Our kids entered NYU the same year.  We had a long conversation about it.”

“Of course we did!”

My friend cracked up;  I couldn’t wait to go home.

That afternoon, I was incentivized to do a little bit of research on facial blindness.  Just how bad was my case, anyway?  It turns out the Prosopagnosia Research Centers at Dartmouth College, Harvard University and University College London (jointly called Faceblind.org) are doing research into the causes and treatment of prosopagnosia.

My husband and I both took the facial recognition test they have on their website.  The average person without facial recognition problems scores an 85%.  My husband scored a 93%.  So apparently, when he doesn’t recognize you, he is just being rude and anti-social.  But I have an excuse.  I didn’t recognize Robert De Niro, Oprah, Tom Hanks, or Mr. Bean, among others (they don’t have hair in the test pictures.) I scored a 46%.  I guess that is pretty bad, but not as bad as some people, who aren’t able to recognize their own image when they look in the mirror.

I will continue to learn coping mechanisms (the first is not to volunteer at any more check in tables) and excuse myself when I re-introduce myself to the same people over and over again. Perhaps it’s good for a laugh now and again.  And I’m in pretty good company.  It turns out that about one person in every 50 may have facial blindness. Apparently, Brad Pitt is one of them.

So Brad and I have something in common; that is, other than our staggering good looks.  And if we should happen to run into each other, I won’t expect him to remember who I am— and hopefully, he won’t mind when I have no idea who he is either.

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18 Responses to I’m Not A Bitch, I’ve Got Prosopagnosia

  1. Prof Gene on November 5, 2013 at 7:04 am

    When I was regularly attending trade conferences earlier in my career, I would wear specially made prescription eye glasses that allowed me to read someone’s name tag from 10 feet away as they approached me. When I greeted them by their first names at a distance, they were so impressed that I recognized them after not seeing them for a year.

    • Ronna Benjamin on November 5, 2013 at 1:12 pm

      Love that! Where do you buy those glasses? Got to get me a pair of those!!!

      • lisa on November 6, 2013 at 10:51 pm

        that’s fodder for a great tv show

  2. Nina Bradicich on November 5, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Gene, I like your suggestion. Mine will take more mental energy but might work for some. To remember the name of someone you meet, I read that one could associate the person with something by picturing something on or about this person which rhymes with his or her name, reminds you of someone, or is amusing. For example, ‘Ronna’ might have a feature of ‘Madonna’ because she also has a space between her front teeth or similar voice or looks like her. If Ms. ‘Cohen’ had a loud voice you can picture a ‘megaphone’ which rhymes a bit. When introduced to a plainly dressed person, you could picture a brightly colored fresh fruit bonnet with large yellow bow or an oversized cowboy hat.

  3. Marlene Clayton on November 5, 2013 at 8:27 am

    OMG it’s a hereditary condition and I am so sorry to have passed it on. I have had this problem all my life and never knew it was a real condition with tests. I always thought maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention. I am afraid it gets worse as you get older because you may now recognize the face but can’t remember the name. I am so sorry to have passed this down to you but it’s not fatal and you learn to fake it.

  4. Ann Marie M. on November 5, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Ronna, Great article! I provide constant amusement for my family with my almost daily incidents of facial blindness. (I also researched it a few years ago to determine what my problem really was!) I’m so glad you wrote about how awful it feels to be on the awkward end of this problem.

    We met recently at the “Back to Work” seminar in Wellesley. If I ran into you today, I would not know you! I find comfort in knowing the experience would be mutual! :)

    • Ronna Benjamin on November 5, 2013 at 1:09 pm

      That is so funny! So much comfort in knowing you would not recognize me either!!! Two deer in the headlights!

  5. Barbara Younger on November 5, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    I’ve got it too! Not a severe form but enough that I found your post quite comforting. As a child I couldn’t tell the Beatles apart (except for Ringo) and I still have trouble with it. I am feeling less alone. Thanks!

  6. grownandflown on November 5, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Unlike many things I read online about aging, this made me laugh!!!

  7. Sue R. on November 5, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    This was extremely comforting. I used to be great and social…now I am (Class of ’80) and this appears to be getting worse and worse. I recognize neighborhood people by their dogs! If their dog gets a haircut, I’m in trouble. Your sense of humor is the best sort of infectious. Thank you so much for posting this.

  8. Susan K on November 6, 2013 at 11:05 am

    Very Funny! You are completely excused from not recognizing me when we sailed by you as I was absolutely completely incognito – with my hair tied up, a large hat and sunglasses!! You on the other hand, looked like you could have been on the cover of a magazine! Looking very good out there Ronna!!

    • Ronna Benjamin on November 6, 2013 at 2:02 pm

      From far away out of context— I didn’t have a chance in hell. But I probably wouldn’t recognize you at Starbucks in Newton Center either…..but you better tap me on the shoulder and re- introduce yourself!!! I am so impressed that you remembered me (and that I looked good!) Thanks for the ego boost!

  9. Sheryl on November 6, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    So, the next time someone acts like they don’t know who I am, rather than get annoyed, i am most definitely going to forgive them….or at least give them the benefit of the doubt. :)

  10. […]  I have prosopagnosia and am not able to tell that these are both Miley, so I am not […]

  11. […]  I have prosopagnosia and am not able to tell that these are both Miley, so I am not […]

  12. Cherie on December 22, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    I see a different face every day in the mirror. I know that I get confused recognising people sometimes and other times there is something distinctive enough that I remember them.

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