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Strangers in the Mirror

Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - 11:59 PM

Oliver Sacks, the famous neuroscientist and author, can't recognize faces. Neither can Chuck Close, the great artist known for his enormous paintings of ... that's right, faces.

Oliver and Chuck--both born with the condition known as Face Blindness--have spent their lives decoding who is saying hello to them. You can sit down with either man, talk to him for an hour, and if he sees you again just fifteen minutes later, he will have no idea who you are. (Unless you have a very squeaky voice or happen to be wearing the same odd purple hat.)

In this podcast, we listen in on a conversation Robert had with Chuck and Oliver at Hunter College in New York City as part of the World Science Festival. Chuck and Oliver tell Robert what it's like to live with Face Blindness and describe two very different ways of coping with this condition, which may be more common than we think.

The World Science Festival is an annual festival in New York City that pays tribute to imagination, ingenuity, and inventiveness. It's pretty much an all-star line up of fascinating talks and performances. This year's festival just concluded, but you can still catch full broadcasts of the 2010 programs, follow their blog, and sign up for email updates HERE. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy this particular morsel.


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Comments [61]

Anna A. Dickinson from Florida, USA

I'm in AP Psychology now, and we've briefly discussed the causes and symptoms of face blindness. The concept always intrigued me, and I'm glad I got to hear some firsthand accounts of what it's like to live with this condition. It's reassuring and inspiring that these individuals were able to overcome obstacles and create successful lives. I loved learning the different methods they use to get by, and generally found the whole interview enlightening and interesting. This podcast was really fascinating, and kudos to Radiolab for educating viewers on face blindness.

Oct. 26 2014 02:05 PM

I'm a face genius. I'm not a genius at anything else though and I'm wondering how I can make use of my face recognizing skills. All you face blindness folks out there don't get jealous. Its very annoying for me. I see someone once and I see them again and have this unrelenting desire to remember where I first or last saw them. I can't stop thinking about this until I can recall where I saw this person before. This together will a total inability to remember names compounds my frustration.

Aug. 13 2012 08:04 PM

the download appears to be broken. I am getting 0KB when I attempt to download this podcast.


Mar. 28 2012 01:51 PM

Count me among the people who didn't realize she was face blind until listening to RadioLab... I honestly have always thought I must be particularly lazy when it came to remembering faces, although no amount of trying harder made it easier.

Now I don't feel like a horrible person for not recognizing my own mother in a crowd. And my sister is less annoyed with me when I need her to keep characters straight for me on television shows!

Nov. 26 2011 10:08 PM

have not yet finished listening to this broadcast but am now terribly curious to try the celebrity face test. Could you put it up online like you did with the hair part mirror image podcast?

Nov. 11 2011 10:15 PM

I heard this on the radio and during a brief break in the show there was a bit of a song played. It was a slow guitar, harmony kind of thing. I loved it but have no idea how to find it?! I don't think it was in the podcast version... Please help.

Jun. 04 2011 09:10 AM
Daniel from CF-BsAs. Argentina

I have written just this week a post about Dr. Oliver Sacks.
Is a very small commentary with the only purpose of introduce and make known the great personality of O.S. and the influence of your books and written.
I'm not trained for make comments of order medical or neurologic, because I'm graduated in Philosophy and Sociology.
On this point of view and trying promote reading de Mr. Sacks to basic forms, I think we can improve the quality of life for readers.

Thanks for your time.

My contact: www,

May. 18 2011 11:54 PM
Patrick from PA

There is an excellent videogame out on the Nintendo DS that explores, among other things, prosopagnosia, in a mystery/horror setting. Listeners who enjoy Radiolab, I suspect, would really enjoy this game as well. It's called 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. Science, pseudo-science, and outright myth blend, and face-blindness is a key component to the plot.

Apr. 01 2011 03:59 PM
Avi Burstein from New York

The entire video presentation of this discussion can be viewed at

Mar. 19 2011 04:31 PM

Fascinating talk! I, too, have some degree with face blindness, coupled with great difficulty remembering names (talk about a socially awkward combination!).

As a kid, I was always nervous when someone other than my parents would pick me up from school or the airport or wherever, for fear that I would not recognize them (and I often didn't at first).

Then a while ago, I was looking at pictures of a friend of mine who I've known for a few years and who has during that time always had the same haircut. I found a picture of her with her hair shorter, and I was shocked at how I completely did not recognize her at all. It was as if she was a completely different person-- but when I compared it to photos where I recognized her, the different was not very much at all!

Someone mentioned that recognition of faces is related to places and cars-- I also cannot recognize different cars unless they're reaaally distinctive (like a porsche or a limo or a jeep). Crazy!

Mar. 09 2011 12:59 AM
J-bird from Sydney

Here's a fantastic blog which comments on this issue, good reading for all:

Sep. 30 2010 07:31 AM
B Quinlan

@ D Reid, you're way off the mark, buddy.
You can write down a name, or try harder to remember it. Name recal is a common issue, but it comes with none of the crushing day to day anxieties that a prosopagnosia suffered has to grow up with.
What you have is an irritating inconvenience. What I have is an isolating disorder that has had disasterous affects on my self confidence and on social interactions. To compare an inability to remember names with an inability to recognise faces trivialises a prosop sufferer's struggle and exemplifies your ignorance.

Sep. 29 2010 07:01 PM

I am a mild to moderately face-blind woman, and after having done several of these celebrity face tests, I've become frustrated with them. As was mentioned in the episode, once I, a face-blind person, learn a face thoroughly, I can recognize it about as well as any other person. It's the process of learning a face that takes a lot longer. So instead of testing face-blindness, these tests seem to be assessing only my familiarity with certain celebrities. My face-blindness is more apparent when dealing with new faces.

But I laughed my way through the rest of the episode because I share many of their predicaments and awkward situations. I've found the easiest strategy, after extreme concentration when meeting someone new, is like Chuck Close's: just be open and direct about it so they understand.

Sep. 21 2010 07:46 PM
Karynna from PA

This was a fascinating episode for me, in part because I have a similar 'disability'-- I don't perceive space & distance the way other people do. I've been lost in a sukkah (a three-sided temporary structure without a proper roof) because I became disoriented when the fourth side of it was closed off. I have a very hard time recognizing sizes of things, and distance is pretty much impossible for me to ascertain without markers. My sense of direction is nonexistent; I find places only when there are lots of signs and I have exceptional directions, and sometimes not even then. I memorize the signs for trips, but if the sun hits them in a different way then they look like different signs to me and I don't know who I am. I also have panic attacks when billboards are changed along routes I frequent, because I don't know where I am. I've even managed to be lost on more than one occasion with a GPS. :/ Most of the time I compensate very very well, but I expend a great deal of energy to do something that comes naturally to most people (to greater or lesser extent). I've only heard of a handful of other people who, for instance, wouldn't recognize their own home if they were dropped in the middle of it blindfolded, but I'm definitely there. Weird, huh?

Sep. 19 2010 04:58 PM
Don Lucas from NH

Andy -

I am a man with prosopagnosia (face blindness). The research that I've read indicates that the part of our brain that recognizes faces is also used to recognize places and cars, but not words. I was a very early and prolific reader (I read a 26 volume encyclopedia cover to cover by the time that I was 7 (I started at 4)). I have absolutely no problems recognizing words and was a perfect speller when younger.

One interesting note: I find that it is easier to recognize a face if I attempt to memorize a picture of the face rather than the real face. By studying the face in 2D rather than 3D, I can improve my ability a very small amount.


Sep. 02 2010 11:07 AM
Andy from Portland, OR

Looks like I'm a little late to the party, but whatever. I have a question that I wish Robert had asked of Close and Sacks. Close mentioned that he is dyslexic: is Oliver Sacks also dyslexic? Is anyone who has this problem with facial recognition dyslexic?

It seems obvious to me that the two should go hand in hand. As I understand it, dyslexics can only see a word as a collection of letters, while the rest of us are able to recognize the appearance of the word in the shape it takes as a composition of letters. If a letter is to a nose or an eyebrow or a mole as a word is to a whole face, then the ability to recognize a word should be quite similar to the ability to recognize a face. Shouldn't it?

Sep. 01 2010 05:53 PM
Jon flee

Reading the man who mistook his wife for a hat after listening to it and it's an amazing book! I never knew I was interested in neurological disorders before!

Jul. 20 2010 06:58 PM

Like db, sherry, and others above I matched every face I was familiar with on all of the tests i've tried so far. I have been known to meet people and think i know them from somewhere and realize later that I must have seen them walking on the street or riding public transit before. I also have a habit of thinking some people look alike in ways others never seem to see (best examples are Glenn Close and Meryl Streep, Robert Deniro and Dustin Hoffman, Rose McGowan and Christina Ricci). I believe this is genetic because my mother also seems to have this ability and can pick out celebrities in a crowd of everyday people (even when they are trying to disguise themselves).

My real question though, is unlike on the podcast where only women seem to have this ability I am a man. How many others out there that are good at this are men? And further, I have to wonder if being a gay man has any affect on this, because studies show our brains work similarly to women's?

Jul. 14 2010 03:59 PM

Gah! The mp3 link seems to be broken again. Help!

Jul. 13 2010 10:55 PM

I really enjoyed the show, but I wish the interviewer had been corrected as to whether people with face blindness "see" faces. Of course we do. What we don't do is *recognize* them. So many people misunderstand this to be either a seeing or memory issue, and it it not! Think of it as if our facial recognition software is broken. It's not our eyes that aren't functioning, nor our memory!

Jul. 10 2010 10:53 PM
Todd Lesh

The music at the end of this show is Herb Alpert and Lani Hall's version of "Lets Fact Music And Dance" from the live album "Anything Goes." I discovered it using the the free iphone app Shazam. I downloaded it to identify this song specifically, so at this point, it's batting 1,000.

Jul. 03 2010 08:51 PM

Recognition as familiar and recognition as a specific person are really different: I took both tests, did pretty well (81%) on the one with unfamiliar test faces in which you just have to recognize the one you've been shown---but only got 3 out of 17 celebrity faces. I've always known I have a problem with faces (as does my brother and an aunt--and I suspect one of my kids, who never greeted classmates on the street, or asked new kids' names.) I cope by verbalizing to myself whatever I can find distinctive about a new face. Bland faces are a challenge, as is running into people out of context.

Jul. 02 2010 09:12 PM

Could you post the slideshow of famous people you showed at the talk? I'd love it try it out!


Jul. 01 2010 05:34 PM
Surgery Doctor

I'm sorry but I can't see the relation here

Jun. 29 2010 05:25 PM

By letting my coworkers and friends know that I am face blind is the best thing I have done to prevent embarrassment. In the '80s it was one 1 fb in 600 people. Now the ratio is 1 in 50. It must be caused by the vaccines.:) Taking the wrong child home from the day care has happened to some.

Jun. 28 2010 05:37 AM
D Reid

First, I love every show with Oliver Sacks in it (well, truth be told, I enjoy all your shows, but he's special).Thanks. Second, not to belittle this condition, but isn't there a less clinically significant opposite condition ? I recognize faces instantly, but can't remember the person's name. I recognize lots of faces of people I've met, can often put them in some context, and know that I should know who they are, but just can't associate the face with a name.

Jun. 27 2010 04:47 PM
Jeff Wagg

@jonathan... are you seriously complaining about a short advertisement to support a free show? Where do you think the money comes from to pay for programs like this?

RadioLab is the best science show/podcast period. They can add more ads.

Jun. 27 2010 12:03 PM

this is bullshit... why do we need to sit and listen through 3 mins of advertising to listen to the main story. I will avoid radiolab like the plague and I will steer people away whenever possible...

Jun. 26 2010 11:13 PM

That is a lovely version of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” at the end !

Anyone have an idea who it is by ?

Jun. 26 2010 11:54 AM

db, I do that too! I always find that I recognize the person way before they recognize me (if they recognize me at all). So I just wait for them to mention something so I don't seem like a stalker.

Jun. 23 2010 06:45 PM

Who's the singer interpreting "Let's Face the Music and Dance" at the end?

Jun. 23 2010 05:07 PM

I had no idea this was an actual condition. I have it too. I do the same thing as Jessica-- chat until I figure it out. I can recognize someone more easily walking away from me than by looking at their face. If I'm going to meet someone at a public place, I always try to arrive first and read so they can recognize me instead of the other way around. I never forget a name though!

Jun. 23 2010 12:06 PM

I'm the same as db...pretending that I don't recognize others so that I don't seem like I've obsessed about a quick meeting sometime in the past.

And now, no matter how many times it happens, I'll just assume that those who don't recognize me are face blind. That's way better (for me) than thinking I'm totally forgettable.

Jun. 22 2010 07:20 PM

Like Sherry above I have the opposite of face blindness. I scored 16/16 on the test, I wasn't familiar with Fred Astaire and JFK jr.,(I'm too young), David Beckham (I'm too American), nor Margaret Thatcher (I'm too young and too American). I consider this hyper-face-awareness a problem because I often remember people with whom I've only had brief encounters, and this makes things awkward when they are probably thinking that I felt that this meeting was more significant than it was in reality. To counter this I often pretend that I don't remember people even when I do- a weird tactic that makes me seem normal.

Jun. 22 2010 02:45 AM

Also curious to know what the music was at the end.

Great show

Jun. 22 2010 01:02 AM

Wonderful panel discussion! I love hearing Oliver Sacks' stories.

I was especially taken by the way Chuck Close describes painting faces; so fitting for his namesake. Seeing only piecemeal up-close bits of face in experience, he forms a vision of you as if at a distance, your face coming together in the revelatory moment only in his mind's eye.

Jun. 21 2010 02:48 AM

I have this condition and cope with it in some of the same ways, but it makes it VERY difficult to change jobs or join a new community.

Still, it's encouraging to hear from others with the same challenge.

Jun. 20 2010 06:46 PM

I enjoy listening to your show and would be very interested in reading the books your guests have written. But as I listen in the car during my commute on the hiway, I cant stop to write the titles down. Is there a "reading list" for Radio lab? A list of the books your quests have written? I would be very interesting. Thanks

Jun. 20 2010 06:19 PM

hmmm, so what is it called when you instantly forget what your girlfriend just said to you?

she has a word for it but i don't think it is a scientific term.

Jun. 20 2010 01:24 AM

Thanks for the link, Ferdinand.
I was able to correctly ID 65 out of 72 faces (90% correct).

I'm good with faces. Several years ago I recognized a woman with whom I used to ride the school bus. I hadn't seen her in over 30 years. I asked, "Is your name "Sally Smith?" and she said yes.

I no longer have my 6th grade elementary school class photo, but I can see my classmates as plain as day. I searched one on Facebook and found her. She was 35 years older, but I remembered her face. A few weeks later I looked her up again and her adult photo had been replaced with a childhood photo at roughly the age I remembered her!

Jun. 19 2010 08:10 PM

Wow, I never knew there was a name for this (Prosopagnosia). My wife always teases me about my inability to recognize actors or friends. Just last night I was telling people about this episode, when some friends showed up, one of whom I could not remember if I had met or not. She looked vaguely familiar, but I could not place a name or where I knew her from. Once someone else in the party called her by name, I realized who she was, and embarrassingly have met, spoke to and socialized with many times. She has been to my house, and I saw her as recently as 2 weeks ago, and yet I still did not recognize her.

Jun. 19 2010 12:32 PM

This episode fascinated me because I am the exact opposite of being faceblind. My husband calls it my mutant power that I can recognize actors and actresses even if they are in heavy special effects makeup. I took the test online and got 18 out of 19 and the only reason I missed Robert Kennedy is that I am unfamiliar with his face.

Jun. 18 2010 06:42 PM

I've suspected for years that I'm face blind and after listening to these two gentlemen I am more convinced I am. Especially the part about knowing people by their dogs. That is how I have lived my whole life. I'm going to have to try the test online.

Jun. 18 2010 03:33 PM

Thank you for the link, I took the tests and didn't do very well, but not pathologically badly. The young and beautiful all look the same to me. The old and the ordinary looking and the ugly have distinctive faces. The young pretty people all have the same face. I thought Matt Daymon was Brad Pitt and that Uma Thermon was Nicole Kidman, and that Tyra Banks was Niomi Campbell. It helps if they have different hair or skin color. The problem is, women and actors change their hair color and I don't recognize them. As soon as they speak or move I know who they are, but with just isolated faces it's hard. I always confuse Matt Daymon and Ben Affleck in movies because they talk alike and used to do movies together. All supermodels look the same if they are the same color.

Jun. 18 2010 03:08 AM

Yes! I love shows with Dr. Sacks in them.

Jun. 17 2010 11:42 PM

I was there!

And sadly, I thought Stephen Colbert was Bob Saget.

Jun. 17 2010 02:02 PM
David W.

I just took the test. I was 1 of 14. I always knew I had a hard time recognizing people. The only one I recognized was Stephen Colbert, and only because I recognized the glasses.

Jun. 17 2010 07:08 AM

What was that chill music there at the end?

Jun. 17 2010 03:12 AM

I listened to this in total tonight after downloading it from iTunes. And found a neat test for the condition online at:

Jun. 16 2010 09:23 PM
Left Flank

I still cannot download the mp3 file. It reaches 11% and then crashes. I've tried to download alone, and while downloading other files. So far, I've downloaded five other problem!


Jun. 16 2010 06:55 PM

OMG I HAVE this! I had no idea other people had this problem. I know people by their clothes and how they carry themselves and their voices. To cope I generally assume that I know everyone and start the conversation off warmly and wait for them to give me context clues as to who they are. Oh wow, this episode has made me feel so much better! lol.

Jun. 16 2010 04:58 PM

"Face Blindness". that anything like when a colleague will chat you up during an event at work then totally ignore you on the elevator the very next day?

Anyway, can't wait to listen.

Jun. 16 2010 02:08 PM


You can check out the celebrity faces test based on Brad Duchaine and Ken Nakayama's research over at:


Jun. 16 2010 11:50 AM

Can we get access to the celebrities-without-hair images to test ourselves at home?

I was sadly about 5 minutes too late trying to get tickets to the event. So happy to hear part of the program! Thanks.

Jun. 16 2010 10:09 AM

It's been fixed!!

Jun. 16 2010 09:18 AM

Hi All,
Should be working now. Sorry for the tease/delay.

Jun. 16 2010 09:18 AM

Ooooh gosh, that's an awful tease. Can'
Pleeeeeeease fix the link.

Jun. 16 2010 08:28 AM

As you may be able to tell my esteemed colleagues above me and I would enjoy our fix.
So please fix. Thank You, come again.

Jun. 16 2010 07:10 AM

Nooooooooooooohhh.... can't get my fix.... Was so happy when something new was up.

Jun. 16 2010 06:24 AM
Sister Chromatid

Fix linky!


Jun. 16 2010 04:52 AM

MP3 link is broken.

Jun. 16 2010 03:32 AM

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