Lots of us are bad with remembering names, but can still pick out a past colleague or old flame when they pop up on social media.
However, a new study from Harvard University has found that up to 5.42 per cent of people struggle with the opposite problem.
‘Prosopagnosia’, or face blindness, is a disorder that makes you unable to recognise faces you’ve seen before, including those of friends and family.
It can also result in you being unable to identify yourself in pictures or the mirror, or feeling like you know complete strangers.
Last year, Brad Pitt detailed his experience with the condition, admitting that ‘nobody believes’ him when he talks about it.
‘Prosopagnosia’, or face blindness, is a disorder that makes the person not be able to recognise faces they have seen before, including those of friends and family (stock image)
Nursery nurse Hannah Read, who has the worst case of face blindness in UK, said that ‘every face looks the same’ and is just ‘two eyes, a nose and a mouth’.
What is face blindness?
Prosopagnosia is a neurological disorder characterised by the inability to recognise people’s faces.
Also known as ‘face blindness’, the severity of the condition depends on the degree of impairment a person suffers.
Some people with prosopagnosia may only struggle to recognise a familiar face, while others will be unable to discriminate between unknown faces, and in more severe cases sufferers cannot distinguish a face as being different from an object.
Some sufferers are unable to recognise their own faces.
Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, comedian Stephen Fry and former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt are among those who have admitted suffering from face blindness.
Those with the disorder may cope by using alternative ways to recognise people, such as remembering the way they walk, or their hairstyle, voice or clothing.
It is thought to be the result of abnormalities, damage, or impairment in the right fusiform gyrus – a fold in the brain that appears to coordinate facial perception and memory.
Prosopagnosia can result from stroke, traumatic brain injury, or some neurodegenerative diseases, but in some cases it is present at birth.
It appears to run in families, which makes it likely to be the result of a genetic mutation or deletion.
While it is commonly cited that between two and 2.5 per cent of the world’s population has some form of face blindness, researchers set out to find its true prevalence in a new study, published in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
They recruited 3,341 individuals to take three different online surveys, where the first asked them to describe their own experiences recognising faces in their day-to-day lives.
The next two were then objective tests which probed their ability to learn new faces and recognise famous ones respectively.
Results showed that 31 individuals had a severe form of prosopagnosia, while 72 had a mild form – a total of three per cent of the study participants.
They also found that participants who could easily recognise faces and those who could not were not obviously distinguishable.
Instead, most of them fell somewhere on a spectrum of severity and presentation, in a similar way to other developmental disorders like autism and Alzheimer’s disease.
Last year, Brad Pitt detailed his experience with face blindness, admitting that ‘nobody believes’ him when he talks about it
The researchers then used different diagnostic criteria to assess some of the participants with face blindness.
Depending on how strict these were, they identified prosopagnosia affected between 0.13 and 5.42 per cent of the group.
Interestingly, it was also found that the stricter criteria did not always identify the individuals who were poorest at recognising faces.
As a result, they concluded that scientists looking into the disorder should relax their threshold for diagnosis, and split people by ‘mild’ or ‘major’ case.
Diagnostic criteria for face blindness vary, but researchers from King’s College London have created a short questionnaire for people who suspect they have it.
It asks people how strongly they agree with phrases including ‘I often mistake people I have met before for strangers’ or ‘I sometimes find movies hard to follow because of difficulties recognising characters’.
Other questions include: ‘When I was at school I struggled to recognise my classmates’ or ‘When people change their hairstyle, or wear hats, I have problems recognising them.’
Each question is scored out of five, giving a total score of up to 100. This final score could be used to help determine the severity of face-blindness.
DO YOU HAVE FACE BLINDNESS? TAKE THE TEST TO FIND OUT
The following statements inquire about your face recognition abilities.
For each item, indicate how much you agree or disagree by choosing the appropriate numbered response on a scale of one to five.
One represents you strongly agree while five represents you strongly disagree.
Read each item carefully before responding and answer as honestly as possible.
1. My face recognition ability is worse than most people
2. I have always had a bad memory for faces
3. I find it noticeably easier to recognise people who have distinctive facial features
4. I often mistake people I have met before for strangers
5. When I was at school I struggled to recognise my classmates
6. When people change their hairstyle, or wear hats, I have problems recognising them
7. I sometimes have to warn new people I meet that I am ‘bad with faces’
8. I find it easy to picture individual faces in my mind
9. I am better than most people at putting a ‘name to a face’
10. Without hearing people’s voices I struggle to recognise them
11. Anxiety about face recognition has led me to avoid social or professional situations
12. I have to try harder than other people to memorise faces
13. I am very confident in my ability to recognise myself in photographs
14. I sometimes find movies hard to follow because of difficulties recognising characters
15. My friends and family think I have bad face recognition or bad face memory
16. I feel like I frequently offend people by not recognising who they are
17. It is easy for me to recognise individuals in situations that require people to wear similar clothes (e.g. suits, uniforms, swimwear)
18. At family gatherings I sometimes confuse individual family members
19. I find it easy to recognise celebrities in ‘before-they-were-famous’ pictures, even if they have changed considerably
20. It is hard to recognise familiar people when I meet them out of context (e.g. meeting a work colleague unexpectedly while shopping
For each question, other than those named below score one point 1-5 (with one being strongly disagree and 5 being strongly agree)
Items 8, 9, 13, 17 and 19 should be reverse scored. i.e., 5 = 1; 4 = 2; 3 = 3; 2 = 4; 1 = 5 2.
Add together the numbered responses to calculate a score between 20 (unimpaired face recognition) to 100 (severely impaired face recognition)
Source: Medical Reseearch Centre
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