Prosopagnosia (Face Blindness)

Most of us recognize people we know by looking at their faces.  It seems to be an automatic inherent brain function.

But what if you couldn’t delineate between people based on their faces?  There are some people who simply cannot distinguish between faces even those of loved ones such as a husband, wife, son or daughter.

Lesley Stahl and 60 Minutes reports on “face blindness”,  a neurological disorder where people cannot recognize faces.  In a few extreme cases face blind people can’t even recognize their own face.  There seems to be varying degrees to this disorder, whose scientific term is prosopagnosia, but the effects can be devastating for all sufferers.

Imagine a world where your children and even your spouse look like strangers.  It is hard to imagine yet normal functioning brains, like most of us have, encounter a similar problem recognizing faces including those of loved ones if pictures showing only the faces (not hair) are turned upside down.  This begs the question why is there this similarity and what part of the brain is responsible for facial recognition.

Science has not been able to concretely say what areas of the brain are exclusively dedicated to face processing. But they do know that there are two sides to this spectrum.  There are the sufferers of “face blindness” as mentioned above and there are a very few of us who find it difficult to NOT recognize a face even if they only encountered it briefly years ago.  The latter are dubbed “super recognizers”.

The short video below shows you the extremes of “face blindness”.

 

For science, facial recognition proposes a very difficult problem for the simple reason that all faces are basically the same.

In her report, Stahl reports that face blindness sufferers cannot recognize or identify faces– even those of their children or spouses. She also reveals that many people don’t even know they have the condition.

Dr. Matsumoto comments on the 60 minute special, “I thought it was interesting.  However, I was surprised to hear her [Lesley Stahl] say most of the medical world didn’t know about prosopagnosia because I have seen it studied all my career. My hypothesis is that it’s probably caused by something organic in the area that governs facial identity, which appears to be different than the areas related to expression recognition.”

It is important, Dr. Matsumoto points out, to understand that there is a big difference between facial recognition and facial expression recognition. Facial recognition is the recognition of faces, where facial expression recognition includes being able to recognize expressions of emotion such as microexpressions.

Test your facial recognition skills with the video below.

To see the entire 2 -part series on prosopagnosia click here.

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