Recognition

I was at the post office the other day, in line to pick up a package, and I saw someone who looked vaguely familiar, but whom I couldn’t identify. This happens a lot; it’s a small town, you see people around, you read stories about them in the paper, and so forth. But this person…it was nagging at me. She saw me, nodded, and smiled, and I smiled back and said “hello,” while I tried to parse who she was.

Just then, my clerk came back with my package, and I thanked her and left, still trying to figure out who it was that I had talked to in line. As I departed, I noticed that she looked kind of puzzled…

…and later I realized it was my landlord’s partner, who had actually dropped by the night before to address the Great Heater Situation of 2007*.

I’ve noticed that this has been happening to me a lot recently, even with my relatively new glasses. I was going to write a witty entry today about my apparent inability to recognize faces, and the brilliant scheme my friend A and I came up with, of putting facial recognition software in my glasses so that I could identify people, and then I did a bit of research and learned about prosopagnosia.

As in, face blindness. This is not to say that I have face blindness; a lot of the articles I was reading were talking about parents who couldn’t recognize their children after they changed clothes, or people who had difficulty recognizing siblings. I don’t think that my facial recognition skills are quite that bad.

I do have a lot of trouble recognizing faces, though, even faces that I see on a regular basis, and when I took some of the screening tests which are primarily meant to stimulate thought about the issue, rather than diagnose it, I was surprised to learn that I am actually really, really bad at recognizing faces. My scores weren’t dismal, but they were pretty darn low, and it was kind of interesting. The face recognition tests I took are pretty neat; if you have 15 minutes or so, you should take them, just for kicks.

I noticed several interesting things when I took the tests, other than my obvious difficulty with learning faces. The first was that in a test which asked me to memorize names, I scored 100%, which I think really illustrates how verbal I am. In a test where I was asked to name celebrities, I got most of the people wrong…unless they were politicians. (Although I did confuse Margaret Thatcher with Camilla, Duchess of Wales. I don’t want to talk about it.) So apparently if you are a politician or I see your name written down, I will remember you.

Prosopagnosia isn’t an inability to see faces, it’s just an inability to parse them. It’s kind of hard to explain, I think, because everyone assumes that they “see” faces the same way, when this is not, in fact, true. People with this condition tend to use other cues to recognize people, and when I started thinking about it, so do I. I recognize a friend of mine by the distinctive hat that he wears; he could probably pass right in front of me without wearing it and I might not parse who he was unless I recognized one of his unique ties. I tend to catalog people by gait, common accessories, car, hair cut, favorite shirt. I am often teased, in fact, for my inability to recognize people, and I’ve also been called cold, rude, or bitchy on occasion as well for failing to acknowledge someone.

It’s also a bitch for me to follow movies, because I have trouble identifying the characters, which I had assumed was relatively common for everyone, but apparently its not. I often confuse characters, which can lead to a state of extreme perplexity and questions like “wait, didn’t she just die?”

Apparently, prosopagnosia is often caused by brain damage, although there is also a genetic component. Since I haven’t been dropped on my head at any point and my father doesn’t have trouble recognizing people, I still don’t think I have it, or if I do, I have a mild case. But it would explain a lot of my social awkwardness, and it explains why people often think I’m being rude; it’s not that I intend to ignore someone or snub them, I just have no idea who they are. Just out of curiosity, I filled out their contact information form; we’ll see if I hear back or not.

It’s interesting that I can start out doing research for what I think is going to be a humorous post, and I end up suspecting that I may have an obscure neurological condition. Or maybe not so obscure; it is believed that around 2% of Americans have face blindness. Given that there’s no real treatment for it, it’s not as though there would be meaningful changes in my life if I found out that I do have it (although I might call my landlord’s partner and excuse my apparent rudeness with a neurological complaint. In fact, I might do that anyway. I don’t think they read my website, so I’m safe. Maybe I should say I have a tumor. I wonder if I’d get a break on the rent if I had a tumor? But what if tumors are a self-fulfilling prophecy, and because I said I had one, I got one? Then I’d be screwed.)

Or maybe I’m just a hypochondriac who needs new glasses. Again. That’s the thing about glasses, you know.

*In brief summation: when they installed gas this summer, my landlord asked if I wanted a heater. I wanted to be all tough-guy, so I said I didn’t think I needed one. Then it started getting cold, and I started whining to Tristan about how cold it is. Tristan, reasonably, said that I should stop whining to him and ask my landlord for a damn heater. I continued whining, until finally it got insanely cold, and I asked for a heater. End of story. Bet you wish you hadn’t followed that footnote now, sucker!