Thursday, September 15, 2005

I am a prosopagnostic!

Huh? What in hell's name is a prosopagnostic?

Now there's a question. Prosopagnosia is not a widely recognised illness or condition, but nevertheless I suffer from it. Let's call it dyslexia for faces. I can't remember them.

Of course, everyone forgets faces (except for those tiresome people who go around saying "I never forget a face!"). But this is a bit different: it's like however hard I try to remember a face, the bits of the face just won't gel into a whole face when I attempt to recall it. If I think "eyes" then I can recall a person's eyes; when I think "mouth" then the same thing happens. But try to think "face" and I get to see eyes and mouth, but they don't seem to have any relationship to each other. Don't ask for noses or ears - my brain just doesn't seem to process them.

It's a bugger, I tell you.

So how do I cope? Well, I tend to rely on other things to help me identify people. Hairstyles are useful - except that when a person changes their hairstyle the chances are good that I won't recognise them. Clothes and jewellery are less useful because they change more often. Voice is a godsend! I can recognise people's voices quite easily, so sometimes I have to wait until someone else speaks before their name clicks into place. There's also something I call "face types" - maybe a few dozen stock outlines of a face which I seem to use to help identify people - useful for recognising families, but not much help identifying individuals within the family.

Because prosopagnosia is not a well reported condition, I never knew I suffered from it until I stumbled across a reference to it in some magazine or other earlier this year. Google brings up about 74,000 hits for the word. Some of the more interesting hits include this one and this one - both personal accounts of living with the condition. And here's a more scientific site.

Finding those websites was a comfort to me. Firstly, I had no idea I had a problem until I came across the word - I just assumed everybody went through life like me, the only difference being that they had better ways of remembering who people were than I did. And secondly, reading through the websites made me realise that if I had the condition, then it was quite mild compared to what others suffered. I can remember a face if I'm in fairly constant contact with a person (very helpful for work colleagues), or if I have their photo around so I can remind myself of what they look like. My Mother's photo is kept on the fridge door - going to meet her at Victoria coach station and realising I couldn't remember what she looked like is not an experience I want to repeat! Luckily she's only little and has light grey hair in a perm, and her voice is unforgettable. Following films and TV is not too problematic either - though don't ask me to name the actors.

Yes, I have had some embarrasing moments. Cousins can be particularly troublesome - I know they're related to me but can't remember exactly who they are. They tend to sound quite similar too, and they always insist on asking me "do you remember which one I am?" Chatting people up in a bar can be hazardous. And I hate - hate - networking.

But it's not too much of a problem. Everybody seems to answers to the word "you".

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