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Hey! Don't I know you?

Thursday, April 03, 2014 - 10:36 AM

In our Soul Patch episode, we feature an excerpt from an event at the World Science Festival, where Robert joins artist Chuck Close and neuroscientist Oliver Sacks on stage to talk about the simple, and sometimes quirky, ways in which they deal with face blindness, a neurological condition that prevents the two men from recognizing the faces of other people.

In some cases, their work-arounds involve memorizing different people's gaits, their tones of voice, even their dogs (but don't let us spoil it -- go listen!).

But we were wondering -- just how rare is this phenomenon? It turns out, to a greater or lesser degree, we all struggle with face recognition. In fact, by some estimates, two percent of the world's population suffers from face blindness, which is about one person in every 50, according to MIT researcher Garga Chatterjee. One in 50! That number blew our minds. To get a sense for what Oliver and Chuck and others with prosopagnosia go through (and for some people, this even means not recognizing their children, or their partners) -- and to test your own face recognition skills -- watch the following video to participate in a live, interactive quiz led by Robert. 

Out of the myriad faces we see in a day, none hold our imagination so much as celebrities (save, perhaps, for those near and dear to us). But how well can you recognize these faces, not only out of context, but without those gorgeous locks we love/hate the famous for? For people who suffer from "face blindness," also known as prosopognosia, the task is nearly impossible as they rely on non-facial information like hair, tone of voice, or as Oliver Sacks points out in our Soul Patch episode, the dogs a person owns. Test your face recognition skills by taking a gander at the faces below and type in the name of the celebrity you think that face belongs to. Don't worry about spelling, this is more about recognition than english skills. 

And we must give this word of caution: doing poorly or well doesn't indicate definitively whether or not you are face blind. However, "if a person knows about [the celebrity] very extensively but can't recognize some of these faces, then he/she might want to take a more standardized face recognition test," says Chatterjee. For a more conclusive, scientific test, head over to the Prosopagnosia Research Center's website and find out what percentage of face-blind you might be, or check out the Cambridge Face Memory Test.

For more on prosopagnosia, check out the full conversation between Robert, Oliver, and Chuck, from the 2010 World Science Festival.


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Comments [19]

Tessa from Oregon

I have moderate to severe prosopagnosia, and a degree in neuropsychology, and I assure you, this is akin to taking an online IQ test. I recognized 9 out of 10 people, and I never knew what David Beckham looked like to begin with. In real life, I can't recognize people I know well, and I get into embarrassing situations all the time. I automatically use cues like hair, voice, gait, clothing style, and unique facial features, like if someone has dimples when they smile, or they tend to raise an eyebrow when they talk, etc. Because of these automatic "crutches" I use, it took me many years after learning about this condition to realize I myself had it.

A scientifically rigorous face blindness test does not use celebrities, and the faces are absent of details such as any facial expression, any color, and other cues like hair or eyeglasses. In this test, everyone was making some kind of facial expression, like Tyra Banks' "side eye" and Fred Astaire's cheeky smile, and Colbert even had on his trademark round glasses. All of these things made the people recognizable to me, even JFK Jr, because of his eyebrows and mopey expression. Also, I particularly have trouble with faces in motion. It is much easier for me, albeit still a challenge, to recognize someone I know from a still photo.

As for the commenter above who said more women got all 10 in the video because women tend to read tabloids, come on. No. It's because women are uniquely socialized from the first day of our lives to be more cued to the emotions of others (which is mostly read by facial expression), more nurturing, and relationship-oriented. And yes, what I'm saying is abundantly supported by scientific research. Saying women's superior performance is because we read fashion mags or gossip rags is a sexist thing to say, even if you yourself are a woman.

Apr. 25 2016 02:17 AM
Sue Packard from Ohio

I have moderate face blindness. My husband was my "lookout" and would sense when I didn't recognize someone and he'd bring up the person's name so I could catch on. Since he died I am very lost and don't socialize in larger groups anymore.
I do often tell people of that fact that I am face blind just so they understand why I didn't recognize them even when we have met before. It is a good conversation starter!
Makes you wonder about victims identifying their assailants.

Mar. 19 2016 11:08 AM

This is such a flawed experiment that it's embarrassing to host it on Radiolab, a site that's supposed to be scientific.

First of all, you can't recognize people that you've never seen. At least 2 people on the list were people I've never seen, because I don't follow sports or pop culture.

The reason women did better at this test may have more to do with women reading tabloids and sometimes having a bigger interest in celebrities. It may have nothing to do with genetics.

I know face blindness is a real thing, but this quiz is too poorly designed to be a real test of face blindness.

Mar. 05 2016 06:12 PM
Patrick Harvey

I got Obama right, and I have a friend who looks very much like Audrey Hepburn (missed that one). I recognize people I know, and people who have similar interests than myself (music and mycology, for the most part) but I do not have a television, and also do not obsess over celebrities like many do. If I have an incentive, I remember faces, and in almost all cases can attach names to them. Of course, I am at the age where memory hiccups once in awhile, so that doesn't help.

There are more explanations for not knowing supposedly famous people than face-blindess.

Feb. 15 2016 06:27 PM
Mike Keskinov from Willow Grove, PA

Hey! This is really interesting topic because without any test I can say that Its really hard for me to recognize any face. I'm overall absolutely normal person. But another thing - I can't say if 2 person faces alike or not. Like you know, parents ask me if his son looks like father. Or if somebody asks me if my sister looks similar to me. I have no idea how to compare!!! Nothing at all. I can't remember or ever describe shape of nose, ears etc. I can't describe any face, even my own. I memorize people faces after some time spend together, but i never can see them if I close my eyes and so can't describe them. I would be happy to participate in any tests etc. about it. I'd like to know myself better. Feel free contacting me. Thank you!!!

Feb. 14 2016 01:53 PM
Muriel from SF Bay Area

I didn't know this was a special skill. Recognizing faces is very easy for me, and I scored 100% correct on the test (and probably would have even if the test were much more difficult). I was shocked and baffled that everyone else didn't as well. I have learned something about the general population and will probably feel more compassionate from this. At the same time, I am feeling a bit unnerved and lonely.

Feb. 12 2016 06:48 PM
David Berenson from Cleveland, OH.

This was fascinating for me also to hear about Faceblindness for the first time. I don't have this problem/condition, but I still only got 2 of 10 of the faces because (as someone else mentioned) it depends upon popular culture awareness. I can't really imagine what it would be like to not be able to recognize or remember faces.

What I was surprised about with the conversation with Oliver And Chuck was that nobody mentioned anything about recognizing voices as a potential way of compensating for not recognizing faces. I would think this would be a very important method, unless one also has voiceblindness as well.

Feb. 11 2016 01:38 PM


Oct. 31 2014 03:16 PM

Very interesting. That test would not be valid for someone who is not up on pop culture though.

Apr. 21 2014 12:00 AM
Cathy from Portland

I used to be really (but very secretly) worried on the airplane coming home to my family at the airport - I was very afraid I would not be able to recognize my husband and children at the airport, and they would feel hurt that I didn't love them enough to know who they were. Coming off the plane, I'd nervously hang back, walk slowly, and look at the sea of faces. Every time, my kids would smile or wave, or move in such a way that I would recognize them and I'd feel profound relief that I dodged the bullet again and didn't shame myself or upset them at our joyous reunion.
Agreeing to meet friends someplace public like a restaurant has always been scary. I have gotten lost searching faces, and had my friends come up to me and take my arm, or wave until I found them. Embarrassing, but apparently normal enough. Sometimes friends would laugh that I was looking right at them but still didn't see them. They always assume I just missed them, rather than I really was looking at them and not recognizing them.
I just can't call up faces in my memory. Oddly, I can picture my dog's face, and my cat's. But I cannot mentally picture any human face - not even my own.
It was a great relief to finally discover this is a brain condition, and not some odd sort of moral failing that I must keep secret.

Apr. 09 2014 05:14 PM
Wood Fern from Sanibel, FL

I heard the program about Face Blindness and thank you for covering such a fascinating issue. How gratifying to those people with 'brain issues' to have their difficulties explained to the public. It will help all of us who were ignorant of these conditions to better understand, accept, and maybe assist those who have them.

I would like to see more programs on these subjects as I think all of us have ways in which our brains are slightly disabled but also likewise unusually talented - or even both in similar categories. I have the odd ability to identify localized accents such as those in parts of the US and Britain, and I can recognize voices immediately on the telephone, even those of acquaintances or business people. My twenty year old grandson has a learning disability involving processing speech in complex conversations such as in the classroom. However, since childhood he has been able to remember and repeat complex dialogue from movies and TV. In addition, he cannot read music but has taught himself to play the piano and plays the guitar at an advanced level. I also have the ability to recognize music and lyrics in the first few bars of a piece. My friend's retarded son can remember dates and the days of the week they fell years before. Please give us more on the strange and wonderful functions of the brain.

Apr. 08 2014 12:21 AM
OregonAdams from Oregon

I've been teaching high school for the last 43 years in the same school. I have grandchildren of my early students now in my classroom. So, a lot of people "kind of look familiar" to me in this rural suburb of a larger city. In taking roll each day, I'd have to put descriptions of the person beside their name, with things I COULD distinguish, such as "red hair" or "fat" but I'd first put the description in German or Italian, and then write it in Phoenician script or use one of 40 Chinese characters that I know. So I CAN remember things, such as 24 different fonts in calligraphy, or teach Latin, German, and Italian, but faces just elude me. It was so great to know I wasn't just "not paying attention" or "don't care about people" as some have accused me of when I didn't recognize them. Of course, as an adult male, I long ago figured out that I shouldn't come up to a woman and say, "Don't I know you from somewhere?"

Apr. 06 2014 08:45 PM
Anonymous from Heartland

I have amazing face recognition but name recognition eludes me. I normally have to use nicknames or pneumonic devices to remember names even with people I have worked with for more than seven years. Does this condition have a name?

Apr. 06 2014 01:42 AM

I learned that I have face blindness a few years ago, it explained so much. As a kid I just thought that wanted posters and sketch artist on TV was just a bad joke and that there was no why people could make identifications that way. I also thought that saying a baby had his father's facial features was just made up to reassure the father. I thought I was just shy at parties and I would wander off when the stress was too much, actually I didn't know who most of the people were.

I coped by identifying people by a combination of other features; hair color, body/leg length ratio, style and color of clothes, gait, medical conditions (kyphosis, bow-legged etc.), and situation. This lead to frequent failures, especially when someone was out of place, very average or changed some of my clues.

It took years to convince my wife that I really did not know who that movie star was on TV but now she helps me in social situations. I have sharp eyes for identifying almost everything but faces so she did not believe me for many years. I would like to tell everyone I know about my face blindness but just have not come up with the nerve to do so. I have told two other people and they reacted quite well but still I hesitate to make it common knowledge.

Apr. 05 2014 06:08 PM
annie from Campbell, ca

I can't believe I just heard about face blindness on radio. I am 55, and by chance cane across this topic on Internet. It was so great to see it explained, and as I read more and more, I exclaimed, "that's me"! I felt validated in that the troubles I had as long as I can remember was due to a very real condition. It has caused me to have extreme anxiety. When I go to my husband's company picnics, or a bbq, people would know me quite well. I coped by whispering to him to tell me who do I know and how do I know them. So I would like to say how wonderful to hear this subject discussed in such a forum.

Apr. 05 2014 05:03 PM

This is not a valid email address, I must say first. I've hidden and adapted my whole life. I'm old now, and things are still harder for females. I would be watched closely for signs of differentness as others waited to put me out of sight - prison, institution, closet, street, anywhere but where the were.
My neuro situation stems from genetics, and severe traumas including brain injury at age 10. I do the best I can, hide and copy others, wandered cold and hungry as a child and sometimes in adulthood. In the end, I am quite feral and would lie on the fragrant, forgiving earth at life's end if I could. I feel less human than other. Is it good that people talk of these things now? Just be culturally sensitive. I'm told that I see what others may not. I see that the world is crying for beauty. Oliver Sacks, keep the storytelling fire going. Peace.

Apr. 05 2014 03:23 PM
Dave Mcnab from Kingston, RI

I've had a mild case of face blindness my whole life and it's nice to know it is a common? problem as I do feel less embarrassed. I'm a retired teacher and I used to tell my kids about my inability to tell right from left as it helped them understand when I would give bad directions. More important it gave the kids with similar kinks in perception/learning a feeling that maybe they weren't just stupid. They needed to figure out coping mechanisms, but they weren't just failures. If Oliver Sacks, a favorite author for me, is face blind then maybe I am OK. Kids need to hear this kind of message. Please try to get this show out to teachers

Apr. 05 2014 02:04 PM
Molly cody from Montclair, nj

I learn soo much from you, including my own face blindness which I had never put a name to! What a relief to know that I am not alone & even in good company!

Apr. 05 2014 12:50 PM
Elise Taylor from Chicago, IL

I'm incredibly glad that more people know about faceblindness these days - myself included! I always thought I was just forgetful. Now that I've started to tell new people I meet, when they come up to me subsequently, sometimes they say, "Hi Elise, I'm !" I'll instantly be able to place them, and be much more friendly than when I'm forced to simply go, ""

Apr. 04 2014 11:17 AM

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