Remembering Faces
September 21, 2004 11:55 PM   Subscribe

I can't remember faces. Help me? (I'm sure you want more details. Inside >>)

No, I'm not coming down with any memory-related sickness.

It's just that my brain is wired a little differently. I remember numbers and email addresses easily. At University, I remembered all 130 room numbers and their occupants at our residential college.

I suck, however, at remembering faces. After I've met someone, I rarely remember what they looked like. It takes several meetings for it to register in my head, even if I talked to them for a fair while the first time.

This didn't bother me when I was working in the web business. But now I run a restaurant, and it's important to remember the names and faces of regular customers. I draw a blank most of the time. It's embarassing when someone says "hello" to me and I don't remember who they are.

I'm sure I'm not the only one with this problem. What are your experiences? Any remedies?

(I'm only 28, so it's unlikely I've got Alzheimer's.)
posted by madman to Human Relations (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
No, not Alzheimer's.

(Me, I have an unusual sensitivity to faces and am really gifted at Math so who knows?)

In any case, remembering faces seems to be processed entirely separately in the brain (see second link)
posted by vacapinta at 12:20 AM on September 22, 2004

madman, same problem here. And technical details, I can tell you just about any of them. IN FACT... as a computer shop, I'd have customers come in, I'd not remember them. Then they'd describe what their problem was and *BOOM*, I'd say, *THAT* customer. Yeah!

I think someone once posted on the blue about face blindness, which is probably somewhat related to this, although definately I don't have anything that bad. I doubt I have autism. Never been tested. Beats the hell out of me, but I'll be watching this intently.

(No, the idea of linking faces and names to things doesn't work for me, either)
posted by shepd at 12:41 AM on September 22, 2004

good question, me too
posted by SNACKeR at 5:09 AM on September 22, 2004

vacapinta, I'm sure I don't have Asperger's syndrome. I have absolutely no problem with social interaction and I have a keen interest in psychology. I'm always playing the "counsellor" role with family and friends.

Somewhat like shepd, I can remember people by what they ate. One of my waiters will say, "Mr. Brown is on table 2", I'll stare at him, then he'll say, "he liked the Ma Po Tofu very much last time?", and then I'll go, "aah, that dude!"

(My Ma Po Tofu is good. Check the recipe on my site. ;)
posted by madman at 5:55 AM on September 22, 2004

Interesting! When you see a face, do you recognize the face but have no idea who it is? Or is every face that of a complete stranger? The first is a familiar experience: I often realize I should know who this person is, that I've seen them before and probably ought to know their name, I just can't remember them; if told "she's the one who wanted blah from you last month," I'm able to assign an identity to the person.

It's entirely possible that this is just because I (a) can't remember names, (b) only sort of remember faces, and (c) don't have the ability to mentally assign names to faces.
posted by majick at 7:01 AM on September 22, 2004

Face blindness doesn't always mean autism. This page on a site about face blindness gives some good tips for other things you can start noticing about customers that might be easier for you to identify. You wouldn't think that if you can't recognize faces you might be able to identify, for example, hair, but that seems to go along with this particular quirk. The trick is to work with other staff so they can assist you in cuing you to other ways you might know someone, like what they ate, or other things. One of the other tips this page has is catching someone's eye to see if they recognize you and then you can at least make the appropriate familiar faces and gestures. If you're looking for a community of folks with a similar problem for tip-sharing, there are several mailing lists for face-blind folks. Or, if you want to really delve into it, the folks at Harvard are studying it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:09 AM on September 22, 2004

Here's a post from Memepol on December 17, 2001 by joshua:
Prosopagnosia is the medical term for "face blindness" -- a condition which causes an inability to recognize others by their faces. Sufferers can still see faces but don't have any special facility for identification, nor can they remember faces. Some are born with it, some discover it in themselves, and some develop it.
That sounds like what you're dealing with and has a better link density than anything I could come up with, although I had to replace one of the links with an cache due to linkrot.
posted by revgeorge at 7:14 AM on September 22, 2004

I don't think I have out-and-out prosopagnosia, but when I see a face, even of someone I've known for months or years, I can find myself wondering 'Is this so-and-so, or is this someone who looks quite like so-and-so?' This becomes worse if I haven't seen someone for a while, even close friends. I often also forget their names and where I may have met them.

The only thing that half works is to look for identifying quirks such as moles and their position, weird spectacles, etc., which I can then index and map to a name. However even if I think I have a 'match,' I'm often doubtful and fail to recognise people, and wait for confirming clues.
posted by carter at 7:41 AM on September 22, 2004

vacapinta: (Me, I have an unusual sensitivity to faces and am really gifted at Math so who knows?)

I remember reading (in Ramachandran's book, I think) that the fusiform gyrus (used in face recognition) is involved somehow with numbers too. Don't know how exactly. Most probably with their representation rather than manipulation, but who knows.
posted by Gyan at 10:31 AM on September 22, 2004

Prosopagnosia is not always an out-and-out thing. I have what I'd call a slight case of it, and it's just like madman described - if one of my neighbors or a relative walks by I know who they are, but if I've only met you once or twice, I might not recognize your face. Or if I see you in the wrong context (i.e. a co-worker running into me at a store) it might not register at first.

See if this sounds familiar: when I watch a movie or a new TV show, I spend the first few minutes confused - when the scene changes between several characters, I'm thinking "Is that the same black-haired guy as the last scene? Is that the blonde i saw before?" - by 15 minutes, I can tell them all apart, but at first it's tricky. Actors I've seen before, people with distinct voices, and people with distinct hairdos or dress styles make it easier.

As for your issue, I've developed a few skills to compensate. First, I can act friendly and greet people without using names, hoping I'll remember who the heck they are in a minute or two. I'm great at recognizing voices. Lately I've found that if I make eye contact and take a good hard look at the face when I meet someone - not something I do instinctively - it helps recognize them next time.

For what it's worth, I also have a very good memory for numbers. I know everyone's phone number, and when I need to choose a password, I pick a random combination of letters and numbers and memorize it.

Good luck.
posted by mmoncur at 2:02 PM on September 22, 2004

if it helps, i have the reverse. i'm a whizz at remembering faces, only cannot remember peoples names at all. i literally have to write down names on a seating plan if i'm meeting people for the second time at work and worry about making a fool of myself.

fwiw, i think it could be the way we're wired - face/name identification of people.
posted by triv at 4:19 PM on September 22, 2004

Yes, shepd, someone did once post in the blue about this.

As Jessamyn says, it's not necessarily tied to autism-spectrum conditions, but it does seem to be common in people on the spectrum.

There is definitely a variety of types of prosopagnosia; some people are unable to visualize/remember faces at all, while others can learn them, just more slowly than normal.
posted by litlnemo at 6:11 PM on September 22, 2004

Yep, I've got this, too. I've had the experience of having worked with some colleagues for upwards of ten years, and still having to really stop and think, "Wait - is that Suzanne? Or Ada?"

The bizarre thing about my situation is that the mental block only happens with adults. I'm a teacher, and I can remember the faces and names of all of my students by 9:15 on the first day. I know the names and recognize the faces of hundreds of kids in the school. But not the adults - and when I taught college students, I couldn't tell them apart, which made things very diffucult.

And I have the same trouble with movie characters that mmoncur has.

My main compensation strategy is always to be friendly and ask people questions about how they are doing in the hopes that I'll get some clue that'll help me make the connection. I also sometimes have success in trying to picture the environment when I last saw a face - I'm hopeless, for example, when a kid's parent says hello in the grocery store, but if I can remember that the last time I saw that face was in the classroom, I can realize it's a parent and not an acquaintance.

I'm feeling very confessional because I've never described before to anyone the extent of my inability to recognize people.
posted by Chanther at 6:59 PM on September 22, 2004

As some might have guessed from my post in the blue and my earlier post here, I have this as well. I suppose I should finally fess up.

My compensation strategies are using voices, posture, hair, etc. -- and also using photos when possible. I can memorize photos and then apply the image of the face in the photo to the real faces I see, though it's not foolproof. This is not typical in prosopagnosiacs, from what I have seen. Apparently my visual memory is unusually good, for things other than faces and cars. (Don't laugh -- supposedly most people use the face recognition part of the brain to recognize cars as well.) Some face-blind people have told me they have no visualization ability at all -- they don't see images in their mind. Whereas I see highly detailed ones -- just not where faces are concerned.

Here is a typical story in my life:

We rent our basement to a woman. She has probably rented from us for 4+ years now. I still do not recognize her when I see her around the house, and have not been able to remember the facial difference between her and her roommates. When she comes up to get her mail and I see her, I'm just assuming it's her... I couldn't pick her out of a lineup. Recently I tried to memorize her face by focusing on a particular facial feature. Well, now when I try to visualize her face, I see a blank face with that one feature. Which is pretty useless. But it's enough that I can recognize her when I see her "in context," at least.

I spend a lot of time asking my spouse to identify people for me.

So if I ever show up at a MeFi Meetup again, and I don't recognize people I met last time... this is why. In retrospect this may partially explain why I like computer-based social interaction. ;)
posted by litlnemo at 12:14 AM on September 23, 2004

Try picking a a feature or two of thier face. Exaggerate it, and work it into a mental picture of their name. Also, memory is a muscle. Get a book of faces, maybe an old highschool yearbook and memorize all the names using this technique.

If I ran a restaurant. I might develop a strategy of greeting everyone like I know them.
posted by xammerboy at 8:19 AM on September 23, 2004

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