Prosopagnosia or face blindness is the inability to recognise faces despite normal vision and learning abilities. Prosopagnosics often fail to recognise faces they have seen many times, including those of friends and family members. To identify others prosopagnosics typically use non-face cues such as hairstyle, voice, gait, clothing, and context.

Here are some experiences of prosopagnosics we’ve worked with:

I’m at the mall and I see my dad. I go up to him and say “Dad, what are you doing here?” Not only is it not my dad, he’s about 15 years younger than I am.

I videotaped my daughter’s ballet recital, but when we sat down to watch it, my wife immediately pointed out that I’d taped the wrong girl.

I was at the supermarket and the woman ahead of me in line said “Hi!”. As she didn’t look even remotely familiar I didn’t fake knowing her, and she told me she was my next-door neighbour. We’d been living beside one another and waving over the fence for several years.

Prosopagnosia is usually lifelong (developmental prosopagnosia), but in rare cases it can be caused by brain injury or brain disease (acquired prosopagnosia). Some prosopagnosics are unaware they have the condition, so they attribute their face recognition deficits to bad memory, lack of interest in others, or poor social skills.

Prosopagnosia has detrimental effects on well-being, social life, and work opportunities. Many prosopagnosics feel guilt and shame when they fail to recognise others. They also experience heightened fear and anxiety in social settings, which can lead to severe and long-lasting social isolation. The occupational costs of prosopagnosia are parallel to those of dyslexia and stuttering. Prosopagnosia may affect up to 2% of the population, or 90,000 people in New Zealand and 140 million people worldwide.

We’re currently testing large samples of people with developmental prosopagnosia using a variety of behavioural tasks. Our goal is to map out subtypes of developmental prosopagnosia as a first step in understanding the nature of the condition and its etiology at the cognitive and neural level. The results will also shed light on the organisation and development of brain mechanisms in normal face processing.

We would like to hear from you if you think you or someone you know might have prosopagnosia. Please register here and we will be in touch for research opportunities.