Health Talk: Face blindness

Cruising a familiar neighborhood, you probably expect greetings from the people you encounter on a regular basis — or you might be upset if someone you know passes you by. Still, before gaping at an offender’s rudeness, make yourself familiar with a severe recognition disorder that could be to blame.

Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, is a medical condition that prevents otherwise normal people from recognizing even commonly seen faces.
While recent studies have suggested that the condition can be congenital — developed during the fetal stages of a person’s life — face blindness is usually a result of severe brain damage.

The region of the brain that houses the root of face blindness has yet to be discovered. However, scientists assert with some certainty that the target region is the cognition area, which helps humans learn about, remember, and recognize objects and people.

Major cases of face blindness may involve damage to the occipital and temporal lobes, which are responsible for visual perception and helping the brain acknowledge sounds, respectively.

Face blindness is different from the average misrecognition of people and faces because it affects the patient’s ability to recognize faces they see on a fairly regular basis, such as faces of family members and close friends. Relying on hairstyles, clothes, and voices to recognize familiar people is one of the early symptoms of face blindness.
There are three main types of face blindness that are prevalent among a majority of the patients — apperceptive, associative, and developmental.

Apperceptive prosopagnosia affects a person’s ability to differentiate between two different faces. An apperceptive prosopagnosiac may not be able to identify a person’s age or gender by looking at his or her face. However, the apperceptive form of the disorder does not affect the patient’s ability to identify people by their clothes or voice. Patients understand the generic structure of a face, but not the distinct facial features and/or expressions that are associated with it, regardless of how familiar they are to the face.

An alternative form of face blindness, known as associative prosopagnosia, is relatively less severe than apperceptive prosopagnosia. A victim of associative prosopagnosia can tell faces apart in photographs, as well as identify age groups and genders. Despite these abilities, this is where the perceptive abilities of associative prosopagnosiacs end. From this point on, the patient fails to recognize familiar faces or recount any further information about people such as names, jobs, or relationship to self. When such patients see familiar people in real life, they are unable to differentiate between them.

The third form of face blindness is known as developmental prosopagnosia. Developmental prosopagnosia takes root during the fetal stages of a person’s life, but manifests itself in later stages of youth and adulthood. This congenital deficiency has more or less the same effects as the other two forms of face blindness. The only differences are that developmental prosopagnosia is more likely to be hereditary and patients are born with this condition.

It is important to note that the symptoms and effects of face blindness are not universal. Different patients show different symptoms and are treated accordingly.

Prosopagnosia research centers at Harvard University and University College London have actually created two online face recognition tests to help people understand what form of face blindness they suffer from. The tests provide a comparison of scores between possible face blindness patients and people with normal face perception.
Much of the time, prosopagnosiacs of all genres fail to realize that they suffer from an impairment.

Unless pointed out by family or friends, patients do not feel that they have ignored a familiar person when they encounter them on the street. Keeping this in mind, the next time your lab partner strides by without uttering a greeting, curb your hostility.