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From The Times


August 11, 2006

Who are you again?


Our correspondent suffers from prosopagnosis an inability to recognise people's faces
out of context. She describes how it affects her life and the strategies that she has devised to
cope
Mary Ann Sieghart
Our daughter is thinking of getting a T-shirt printed, with Dont blame me Im prosopagnosic on it. Come to think of it, she
could do a bulk order and include her mother, father and grandmother. The T-shirt might be able to get us out of a lot of tricky
social situations.

Heres a classic example. Im sidling along a row in a theatre towards my seat at the centre of the stalls.
Coming in the other direction along the row towards me, and clearly heading for the seat next to me, is a
smiling woman. Do I know her? I guess I must do, though Im not entirely sure. In my job, with a picture
byline, I sometimes get greeted by total strangers. I am lacking a crucial clue: context. In a neutral venue,
such as a theatre, I cant tell if she is a colleague, a fellow parent at one of my childrens schools, a
politician or a friend. So I put on my glassy smile and hope desperately that a few moments conversation
even the timbre of her voice will identify her. Sure enough, it does. I soon realise that she is The
Timess managing editor, who sits in an office just a few feet from mine, and whom I see most days of the
week.
Embarrassed? You bet! But this is an everyday occurrence for me, members of my family and millions of
other prosopagnosics. What we have in common is that we are face-blind. We find it surprisingly difficult to
distinguish one person from another. For me the distinction is hardest between people who have regular,
symmetrical features and no particularly odd ones, such as a big nose or bad skin. Into this category falls
my managing editor, as well as most actors, which is why I cant tell the difference between Tom Cruise and
Brad Pitt.
I have had this problem all my life. I can recall reading adventure stories in which the children would
describe the baddie to the police, and thinking that I wouldnt know where to start. I consoled myself that, as
with most skills, I would get better at it as I got older. Sadly, I never did. My brother remembers, when we
were teenagers, we watched a film with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen. Afterwards he asked me which
was which. Ive no idea! I confessed. Both were good-looking men with chiselled faces and blue eyes.
How was I supposed to tell them apart? Prosopagnosics often find it hard to follow the plot of a film.
I hate it when there are lots of characters and particularly if they are all dressed alike. I found Gosford Park
impossible: all the men had identical, slicked-back hair and dinner jackets, while the women had very
similar hairstyles and dresses. I kept whispering to my husband, Whos that? to which he would reply
God knows! As you can imagine, were a hopeless couple at parties.
Like many prosopagnosics, though, I have developed ways of coping. I rely strongly on hair, glasses, voice,
clothes and gait which means I can be completely thrown if someone I know has a haircut, grows a
beard or changes their specs. I try very hard to remember faces, but with little success. I often find myself
spending an hour and a half having lunch with a new acquaintance, furiously trying to imprint his features
on my memory. Yet the chances are that the next time I bump into him, I wont know who he is. In fact, I
could easily walk past him in the street the next day and not know that we had ever met.
The consolation is that I have at last discovered that the problem is not my fault. I used to think that I must
be lazy or thoughtless or uninterested in other people. Now that I have taken part in a research study at
University College London, I know that I am a proper prosopagnosic and so are one of my daughters, my
husband and my mother. My grandfather probably was too, but sadly it is too late to test him now.

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2/6/2007

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My daughter Evie and I discovered our official prosopagnosic status before our results were even analysed.
One of our computer tests had a mans face on the top of the screen (shorn of hair damn!) and what
looked like exactly the same face replicated four times beneath it. We were then asked to rank the four
identical faces in order of similarity to the one above. Simultaneously, we burst into giggles for how
could we rank faces that all looked the same? I can always tell the genuine prosopagnosics, said the
researcher who was conducting the test. All they can do is laugh when we give them this one.
In the tests, Dai (my husband) and I came out as moderately prosopagnosic, while my mother and Evie
were severely so. In most of the tests, my mother and Evie scored less than the bottom 1 per cent of the
population. Dai and I did too in a few of them, but in others we were around the bottom 20 per cent. It may
be that we used better strategies to compensate for our face-blindness. For instance, I ended up ranking
the apparently identical faces according to the bushiness of their eyebrows.
We were all pretty bad at spotting famous faces. Without their hair, I even had to think twice before
identifying Tony Blair and the Queen.
Brad Duchaine, the Harvard academic who is leading the UCL study, had sneakily put his own face into the
mix. Although we had met and chatted with him just minutes before, none of us could identify his picture. Is
it that small American actor you know, the Scientologist? asked Dai.
I answered Tom Cruise to every dark-haired, regular-featured actor, reckoning that Id be right at least
once.
Duchaine believes that different parts of the brain are involved with processing faces and objects. Sure
enough, his research demonstrates that for most prosopagnosics the difficulty arises only in discriminating
between faces, and not other similar objects. The computer flashes up ten faces, for a couple of seconds
each, twice. Then it flashes 50 faces, among which are the ten you have already seen. You have to say
whether each face is new or whether you have seen it before. The test is then repeated with houses,
horses and cars.
On the faces, I scored worse than the bottom 1 per cent of the population. On the horses and houses,
though, I was in the top 25 per cent. Which raises an interesting thought: put me in the paddock at the
races, and I could make polite conversation with the mounts but wouldnt be able to tell the jockeys apart.
Evie and my mother, though, as well as being terrible at faces, were pretty bad with cars, horses and
houses too.
Duchaine has found that about a third of the prosopagnosics he tests have other family members who
suffer, and his next task is to identify the gene responsible. He has also found that about a third have
problems with differentiating between objects as well as faces. And about 20 per cent find it difficult to
recognise emotions when presented with a pair of eyes again, Evie and my mother scored badly here,
while Dai and I were fine.
But even they are not as severely impaired as some sufferers. Duchaine has tested people who cannot
recognise members of their own family they dont know which is their child when they come to pick him
or her up from nursery. And there are even some who cannot recognise themselves in the mirror.
Duchaine believes that prosopagnosia is much more common than previously thought. He has five or six
people a day emailing him after having seen his website (www.faceblind.org). People dont realise that its
a neurological problem. They just blame themselves. I get a lot of e-mails expressing real relief when they
discover that its not their fault.
A German study estimates that the incidence of prosopagnosia could be as high as 2.5 per cent of the
population.
What scientists have not yet worked out is why the area of the brain that processes faces fails to develop
properly in prosopagnosics or indeed what exactly goes wrong. One interesting finding is that, while
normal people find it much harder to recognise faces when they are upside down, prosopagnosics are
sometimes even better at it. I was in the bottom 30 per cent for matching the upright faces, but in the top 16
per cent for matching the inverted ones.

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2/6/2007

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When I was doing the test, I know that I was treating the faces as if they were objects: comparing eyebrows
or the distance between the nose and the mouth. To me they were almost like abstract shapes, so it didnt
make a lot of difference whether they were upside-down or the right way up. To a normal person it would
make all the difference in the world.
Maybe this helps to explain Evies problems. She has always been hopeless at recognising patterns. When
she was tested at the age of 7, because her teacher was worried that she was still reversing letters and
numbers, the educational psychologist was astounded. He had given her a simple cardboard line drawing
of a human face, broken into five or six pieces, and asked her to put it together. She found it almost
impossible, and could not even work out whether the nose went above or below the mouth. Only by looking
at the psychologists own face, she admitted afterwards, was she able to put them the right way round, and
even then she could not complete the puzzle.
People without prosopagnosia would find this quite incomprehensible. And I can easily see why. If someone
told me that they couldnt distinguish between a dog and a cat, I would think that was nonsense. For how
could anyone fail to see the difference? Thats why acquaintances, friends and, yes, colleagues are still
offended by my failure to recognise them, even when I explain that its due to a neurological failure, not
wilful rudeness. This is particularly mortifying to me, as I try to make a point in life of treating people with
courtesy. It seems such bad manners to cut someone dead, even unintentionally.
So I am rather in despair. Even Evies T-shirt idea may not work. Perhaps my only hope is to affect severe
shortsightedness. For at least people understand myopia.
maryann.sieghart@thetimes.co.uk
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2/6/2007