Recently, I began talking to a woman on Pink Sofa* who suffers from a mild case of prosopagnosia. In other words: face blindess. Oddly, it’s a lot less rare than people think, and up to 2.5% of the population (including Brad Pitt, and Oliver Sacks – the neurologist who famously wrote a book of essays entitled ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’) have this condition, where they have an impaired ability to recognise people they have met before, even their own friends and family.
There are two types of prosopagnosia: congenital and acquired (either through stroke or brain injury). In Sacks’ case it was hereditary. I’m not sure about Brad Pitt, but I suspect he was probably born with it too. My friend on Pink Sofa was in a car accident; and her symptoms were so subtle that she didn’t think anything was wrong with her, until she realised that two new acquaintances she’d recently met at separate slimming clubs, were actually the same person AND this person was a work colleague.
The thing is, even though I mostly struggle with other aspects of visual processing such as topography and spatial awareness, I can strongly relate to the difficulties that people with prosopagnosia experience: For example, I have lost count of the number of the times I’ve bypassed people in the steet who I’ve simply not recognised; or I’ve tried to talk to a complete stranger because I thought I knew them; and often people will accost me in the street, and I’ll find myself nodding and agreeing with them and pretending I know who they are and what they’re talking about, because it’s easier and less embarrassing to say otherwise. Because people often get very offended when you don’t remember them. And they think it’s because you’re rude or self-obsessed or (at best) uninterested in them, especially if you’ve met them more than once.
Years ago, I left my then-girlfriend waiting for me outside a shop in Glasgow Buchanan Bus Station whilst I went to use the loo, and when I re-emerged I couldn’t find her because I not only forgot which direction I was meant to be heading in, but what she looked like! She was mortified to say the least and she ranted on at great length about how she couldn’t believe I’d walked right past her, and how could I not recall her…
She just didn’t get it. But then most people don’t. Which why it’s often easier to just feign ditziness, to pretend you’re busy in your own wee world.
Another thing that me and my new friend from Pink Sofa have in common is that we both have difficulty following films and TV programmes. Usually I muddle through, relying on accents, hairstyles, clothing and distinctive hats, but there have been a few things I’ve found particularly challenging to watch: ‘The Passion Of Christ’ was one of them – simply because the characters were mostly middle-aged men with beards and I couldn’t tell which one was Jesus! Another was the American gangland drama, ‘The Wire,’ because most of the characters were all young black men with cornrows and I kept getting confused with who was in who’s gang; the principal detective was white so I was able to differentiate between him and the people he was trying to arrest; it was a wee bit trickier, however, with the two leading ladies in the show who were both red heads.
Whenever I go to potlucks or social gatherings I try to transfer my TV-watching strategies to recognising people I’ve already met, but you can’t pause or rewind real life; and as Antonia recently pointed out ‘people don’t always wear the same hat’. They don’t always have the same haircut either; and there’s always the chance that someone I know will get a mohawk or dye their bonce a different colour and if that happens I’ll just have to deal with it as best as I can.
And if I do happen to dither on past you as I’m trying to navigate around town, please don’t be insulted. And, if in doubt, do re-introduce yourself.