How do I recognize people?
July 18, 2012 2:14 PM   Subscribe

I have a lot of trouble recognizing faces. (to quantify I scored 20% on this famous faces quiz. What can I do to train myself to get better?
posted by grudgebgon to Human Relations (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You may suffer from prosopagnosia, which is a condition (sometimes caused by injury, but now also thought to be congenital) that impedes your ability to recognize faces. I suffer from a mild version of it. I simply cannot recognize people after one or two meetings unless there's something very distinctive about their face.
posted by justkevin at 2:33 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To clarify, I didn't only have issue with that quiz. I have enormous trouble recognizing people even if I've met them many times. In context I muddle through by remembering details of body shape, clothing preferences, hairstyle, voice, etc but it's not at all automatic.

I don't see somebody and think "that's Chris" unless they're one of a very few people. I think "dark skin, short hair, modern suit, ugly tie... I think that's Chris" and that's I'm the better case.

I'm sick of forgetting people though, and want to remember them.
posted by grudgebgon at 2:46 PM on July 18, 2012

I'm moderately prosopagnosic -- it's possible for me to get to where I recognize faces, but I need to see them and consciously study them a lot more than most people I know do before the recognition-circuits actually kick in properly.

The reasons behind faceblindness can vary, but in my case it seems to be mainly due to my brain's tendency to default to recognizing people according to things like clothing, hairstyle, hair color, facial hair, eyeglasses, etc. In order to be able to recognize people based on their individual, largely-unchanging facial features, I need to make a concerted effort to look at and mentally record images of said features in my mind. Things like minor variations in nose shape, or the angle of a person's eyes, or the way their chin meets their neck, etc. One thing that might help you practice is (for instance) doing a google image search for a particular actor and figuring out what is constant between the pictures regardless of that actor's age, outfit, hairdo, etc.
posted by aecorwin at 2:51 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, it sounds like you have prosopagnosia. It's very hard to deal with. My SO is at about the 2nd percentile on facial recognition, and his way of dealing is just telling people, "I have prosopagnosia/face blindness, please don't be offended if I don't recognize you the next time we meet. Instead, just remind me who you are." He thinks that his ability to remember people even outside of their face may be impaired by his face blindness.
posted by jb at 2:56 PM on July 18, 2012

I did reasonably well on that quiz, but I often have problems recognizing people. I can see a face and think, "I recognize that person," but then have problem connecting the face to a specific name. I also tend to perceive resemblances more clearly than differences, so I can see someone in a crowd and think that they're someone I know, then realize that I've erred.

It works the other way, too: I can have a list of people (such as students in my class), recognize all the names and connect them to something such as a piece of written work, but not have a clear image of the person in my head. Context matters a lot: I can recognize someone if I expect them to be somewhere, but then misrecognize them elsewhere.

If your problem is of that sort, then a solution is to try to forge the connections by using the person's name regularly (especially when first meeting them), making flashcards and quizzing yourself (seriously, it can work wonders), etc. I've also decided that I need to be frank with people about my erratic memory for faces, and admit if I think I should know them but can't put a name to their face.
posted by brianogilvie at 2:58 PM on July 18, 2012

Best answer: Tips from a faceblind person.

My oldest son became less faceblind with taking certain supplements. So I think it is possible to heal the damaged area of the brain responsible for facial recognition. (I have reason to believe his face blindness is from an early head injury.) You might try glyconutrients, sea salt, coconut oil, egg yolks, and B vitamins.

If you have some degree of face blindness, I don't believe you can "learn" to more easily recognize faces. You can try to heal your brain so it works better and you can try to learn tricks to recognize people based on something other than their face. Voice recognition is a fairly common alternative. My son recognizes voices far better than I do.

My ex did not do well with faces. He was career military. Everyone wore a nametag. I think that's part if why that job was a good fit for him.
posted by Michele in California at 2:59 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The website that quiz is part of is for a Prosopagnosia Research Center -- the test was created to help find developmental prosopagnosics for their research. Their site has a bunch of information and links, and they're desperate for people like you to be participants in their research -- use the contact form. They are not entirely sure right now what the causes are or what the solutions are, but they're working on it! If you're able to be a participant, please do! The researchers will also be able to answer more general questions if you can't be a participant.
posted by brainmouse at 2:59 PM on July 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately, I do not believe there is a treatment for it. Instead, compensatory techniques are encouraged. You can find those on the internet.

I'd encourage you to get a diagnosis.

Have you always had this? Because if you haven't, you DEFINITELY want to get checked out ASAP. Have people in your family struggled with it? ("Forgetful" uncle, etc.)

Prosopagnosia is not related to memory dysfunction, memory loss, impaired vision, or learning disabilities. Prosopagnosia is thought to be the result of abnormalities, damage, or impairment in the right fusiform gyrus, a fold in the brain that appears to coordinate the neural systems that control facial perception and memory. Prosopagnosia can result from stroke, traumatic brain injury, or certain neurodegenerative diseases. In some cases it is a congenital disorder, present at birth in the absence of any brain damage. Congenital prosopagnosia appears to run in families, which makes it likely to be the result of a genetic mutation or deletion.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 3:02 PM on July 18, 2012

There was an amazing radiolab episode about face blindness. IIRC, one of the people featured literally could not recognize his own girlfriend--when they arranged to meet she would have to tell him what she was wearing.
posted by xyzzy at 3:29 PM on July 18, 2012

Upon preview, I can't offer much advice except to get a diagnosis and go easy on yourself.

Especially go easy on yourself. You are undoubtedly a kind and compassionate person. Be aware other people are very forgiving when you don't remember their name, or even recognize them, until you've interacted several times. Nth this when you are honest and sincerely care about them.
You're not broken or a weirdo. You have an inability to recognize others until you firmly establish a bond. This does not disqualify you from the decent person club.
posted by Pudhoho at 3:32 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have this problem. I recognize people in if I see someone at work, I know who he/she is, but if I'm just out in public I could see the same person and either not recognize at all or think he/she looks vaguely familiar but cannot be sure.

If I'm trying to meet someone in public and I don't know him/her well, I keep myself occupied with other things so that the person will come find me. Or, I am also pretty observant and when it comes to people I really need to recognize, I just make sure to study them discreetly so that I will know who they are if I happen to see them out of context.

Not sure if a diagnosis will help because I don't think there is any real treatment for this sort of thing. Maybe in a work setting you could have the backing of a doctor's note so that superiors will know why they shouldn't be offended, but I know what it's like to feel like a freak when I tell acquaintances that I have trouble recognizing people...which is why I keep myself occupied with my phone or looking at my fingernails or whatever when I'm supposed to be meeting someone in public. Or I get there early so I can send a text and say "hey I'm sitting over by [landmark]" and then they can find me.
posted by fromageball at 3:42 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There was a great Oliver Sacks article in the New Yorker about the fact that Dr. Sacks has this condition and how he compensates for it. Link goes to the excerpted version, the full version is subscriber-only.
posted by matildaben at 4:18 PM on July 18, 2012

Best answer: You could try learning to draw portraits. Also doing jig-saw puzzles of faces. This will help you look at the individual features and possibly memorize them where entire faces won't stick in your memory. If you do this enough you can start to identify more features than "has big dark eyebrows" and also get "forehead is shaped like..."

It can sometimes help if there is a picture gallery of the people you want to learn to recognize, sort of like facebook once sort of almost was meant to be. If you have poor visual memory, especially when it comes to people, it can help to review photographs of them. That makes it easier to remember that of the four people you met on Friday, Amy has very dark hair, Amanda has sort of reddish bushy hair, probably dyed, Amarintha has bushy hair too, but hers is brown with those faux blonde highlights, and Amina is the one with hair that isn't dyed but is thick enough that it is a lot of it, even though it isn't bushy and hers is a kind of a dull brown...

If you can draw, you can sit there and idly sketch people when you are at a meeting or a party and then you have a portrait gallery to review later. You do not have to be a good artist to do this - in fact, being a bad artist will help keep people from feeling the need to admire your drawings - but you do want to develop enough skill that you can create a visual image of that will remind you that this one has a convex bridge of the nose, and that person has big nostrils and the other one there has a kind of a skinny little nose that is probably considered conventionally handsome. Caricatures work when you do this. If you draw Amy as an anteater nosed person and Amanda as an elf and Amarintha as a roman horse, it can still get it into your mind. Making their faces look less realistic may help you to use other parts of your visual memory than the face recognition part.

Another thing you can do is become a picture taking fanatic and take pictures of everyone and everything, and then you have your own set of photographs to review, but this is less likely to go over well given the number of camera shy people.

It can be easier to recognize people when their faces are upside down or sideways, depending on the way your prosopagnasia works. Another thing you can try, if you absolutely can't draw, is using a cover sheet on top of a photograph and covering most of the details of the person's face so that you are only looking at their brow ridge.

People who read other people well can tell from looking only at a picture of the eyes if a person is smiling or not. You want to work on looking at faces until you consciously develop this skill if you don't already have it.

If you have kindly and cooperative people, you can ask them to close their eyes and then look at their faces and try to develop visual memories of them. When you are not overloaded by the social processing of not holding your gaze too long and not getting distracted by why the eye contact means, it can allow you more mental room to work on actually imprinting an image. If people have commented that you have gaze difficulties you can try this. You can get practice with patient family members and develop some skill to carry over to recognizing new people who don't know you well enough to close their eyes and let you stare at them.

You might have some visual abilities that are stronger than usual, such as the ability to see tones and values better than average. If you have something like that you might be able to build on it and work on using skin tones as another key to facial recognition.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:31 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

My foster sister has this same problem, and most of us just make a point of letting her know who we are each time we see her in public. (If she's at my house, she can figure out me from my husband and daughter.) So partially, I'd let people know. Once she explains that she can't recognize her mother, she's just memorized as many of her features as she can, most people aren't hurt that she can't recognize them. The one trick that has come in handy, though, is that she has trained herself to see the look of recognition on other people. That narrows down greatly who she should attempt to talk to. So if you can figure out what people look like when they're recognizing you, that could help a lot.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:29 PM on July 18, 2012

I scored in the 1st %ile on that quiz. Nonetheless I have no huge problems in daily life. Just today one of my coworkers shaved his head and I admit it took a second to sort out who he was. I pretty much never recognize actors in movies or TV shows, which probably does make them less enjoyable to me. I'd be a terrible salesman or grade school teacher. But it's not really worth worrying about.
posted by miyabo at 6:02 PM on July 18, 2012

I don't know how much use that test is, I got 93% yet I always need my wife to tell me who is who at a party because of people having different hair/clothes/etc than the last time I saw them.
posted by Cosine at 6:48 PM on July 18, 2012

I don't know how much use that test is, I got 93% yet I always need my wife to tell me who is who at a party because of people having different hair/clothes/etc than the last time I saw them.

Same score here, and I can barely watch a movie without asking "who’s that?" if someone changes clothes.
posted by bongo_x at 8:44 PM on July 18, 2012

When I was looking into this myself I was trying to find other tests. I'm pretty bad with faces in social situations, and I've done poorly on a famous-faces-without-hair test. (It was really weird. I kept seeing different people come up and thinking, "that's Mel Gibson!")

It looks like there used to be a non-famous-faces test on, but it's not up anymore. I'd be curious if anyone has found another resource like that. (Random faces: this is Amy, this is John, this is Mary...)
posted by spbmp at 6:23 AM on July 19, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks to all of you for answering. I'm putting together a list of virtually every suggestion that I found on this page and from the articles that were shared with me, and will start trying things.

I guess the good news is that I've always been terrible at recognizing faces, so it's probably not injury-related, and it seems that many people have successfully integrated an admission of this weakness into their greetings without negative consequence, so that is a possible route as well.

If any of you are still following this thread, I have a follow-up question: I'm wondering what it's like for you when you see a face.

I imagine that it's sort of like the experience I get when I listen to a piece of music. I don't think about attributes and then deduce 'that's Dylan' hear it and I just know "that's Dylan". Is it that automatic for you?
posted by grudgebgon at 9:14 AM on July 19, 2012

Best answer: FWIW: I learned of faceblindness when my sone was fifteen. He became very defensive and tried to deny it, saying something like "I got better". I told him I recognized my sister instantly when I returned from Germany, though it was nearly four years later and we had both changed. I made my point and then let it drop. It took him six weeks tobe comfortable. He has since made the point that he is not truly faceblind. He can lern faces, it just takes enormous repetition.

He and I recently talked about the fact that some of his difficulties are really not that weird and are probably an outgrowth of modern life on a very crowded planet. For example, it is fairly normal to have more trouble recognizing an acquaintance out of context. (I think between 50% and 80% of people have some rouble with this.) In other words, if you work with them, you will more readily recognize them at work than if you run into them unexpectedly elsewhere. Historically, when people came from small towns, you might know only 500 people, all of very different ages, professions, etc. Now, you might graduate high school with 500 people, all the same age, all students, many of them dressing similarly because of fashion trends, etc.

Also, while it is socially helpful to say "I am terrible with faces. You are again?", there is a downside to advertising that you are faceblind: It makes you vulnerable. So depending on circumstances, it might be safer to say something like "Have we met? I meet so many people in my job. You seem familiar but I just can't place you." Decent people will be just as understanding of that type of explanation and and it is less likely to get you victimized by someone intentionally trying to take advantage of your handicap.
posted by Michele in California at 10:10 AM on July 19, 2012

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