The Noisy Channel


Facing Prosopagnosia

March 18th, 2012 · 9 Comments · General

In the past few years, prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness”, has received a fair amount of attention from researchers, as well as from the popular press.

My first exposure to the topic was Joshua Davis’s article entitled “Face Blind“, which appeared in Wired in November 2006. I was intrigued, especially since I’d long recognized that I had difficulty recognizing people by face. Perhaps the person who has done most to raise awareness of prosopagnosia is neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has prosopagnosia himself.

The Wired article inspired me to explore the subject. I discovered and found quizzes that tested for prosopagnosia. On one of these, where random guessing would have earned a score of 50%, I scored in the low 60s. My initial reaction was that my score wasn’t so bad — it was a hard test! Then my wife took the test and scored in the high 90s. That’s when I realized that I didn’t just have difficulty recognizing faces — I was almost incapable of it.

Faced with this realization, I had to decide whether to share it with my friends and family, let alone with my broader set of social and professional acquaintances. It was tempting not to — after all, why tell the world that I wasn’t “normal”?

But eventually I realized that it would be better for people around me to know than not know. The biggest downside to prosopagnosia isn’t the momentary embarrassment of not recognizing someone — it’s the content fear of offending people who may think you don’t value them enough to recognize or acknowledge them.

Hence, I spread the word through my colleagues, ensuring that most of the people with whom I interacted regularly would find out without any big announcements. Some of my co-workers were surprised, since I do a pretty good job of recognizing people using non-facial clues — height, hair, clothing, where I run into them, etc. I have a great memory, and I have no problems with voice recognition. In other words, I have lots of work-arounds.

Fortunately, I work with a lot of people who understand machine learning — which is a great framework for understanding how I recognize people. I simply work with a different set of features than most people, but fortunately I achieve sufficient precision and recall to pass as “normal” most of the time.

Anyway, if you didn’t already know that I had prosopagnosia, welcome to the inner circle! And if you ever felt that I walked by you without recognizing or acknowledging you, please accept my belated apology.

Finally, if you’re curious to learn more about prosopagnosia, I encourage you to watch this 60 Minutes show about it.

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Fletcher // Mar 19, 2012 at 4:24 am

    Interesting. Perhaps the difference is related to who is a ‘people person’ and who is not? If one is a ‘people person’ perhaps it is because he/she has a better ability to recognize (and retain) faces?

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 19, 2012 at 6:56 am

    It’s surely easier to be a “people person” when you can recognize and retain faces, but my success as an extrovert shows it’s possible to manage without it. Don’t know how much of intro / extroversion is innate vs learned.

  • 3 Claire // Mar 19, 2012 at 8:17 am

    I read Sacks’ piece in the New Yorker about it (–really fascinating. It doesn’t affect your ability to read faces though, right?

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 19, 2012 at 8:34 am

    I’m not aware of any effect on me personally. But there’s a bunch of research on the subject, e.g.,

  • 5 Nic Fulton // Mar 20, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Daniel – I would never have guessed as you have recognised me everytime we’ve met over the years. I hope I don’t have a particularly squeeky voice that you can remember me by!

    BTW – I’m hoping to make it to RecSys 2012 in Dublin. Are you going to be there?

  • 6 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 20, 2012 at 9:00 pm

    Nic, it’s your distinctive name. If you spelled it with a k, I wouldn’t be able to tell you apart from Paul Hogan!

    And yes, planning to be at RecSys. I hear there’s going to be a great Industry Day. 🙂

  • 7 jeremy // May 10, 2012 at 7:09 am

    I don’t know if you’re a RadioLab fan, but they had a great story a year or two ago on prosopagnosia. It’s story #2 of the hour, “Falling in Love”:

  • 8 Daniel Tunkelang // May 10, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks! Never experienced anything quite that extreme, but I can relate to his experience. Still, I suspect they are taking some poetic license. There are lots of non-facial cues for recognizing someone.

  • 9 jeremy // May 14, 2012 at 6:17 am

    Bah, never let the truth get in the way of a good story 🙂

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