Sunday, September 07, 2008

How this face-blindness thing works

Ok, so this is what happens.

I'm in the changing room on campus, about to head out to my weekly tennis game with Alison, Denise and Clara. I hear two women come in, and identify them from their voices as Denise and Alison. Two women come around the corner and I greet Denise cheerily and smile politely at the unknown woman. 'Oh!' I think, 'Denise has brought someone new to play with'. And then of course I realise it is Alison.

There are some reasons for this misrecognition, however. Before her chemotherapy, Alison used to have gorgeous long, shiny, straight dark red hair. After her hair fell out, she wore a wig that looked exactly like her hair, but for tennis she wore a little cap over her slowly re-growing hair. So I knew it had grown out curly, though no longer shiny dark red in colour. But she had, as she explained, 'come out' as a cancer patient, and was now wearing her curls clipped and coloured a beautiful pearly blonde, and so I did not recognise her, even though (a) I was expecting to see her; (b) I had heard her voice; and (c) I knew she had short curly hair. To cover my embarassment, I found myself explaining the concept of face-blindness. It was only a second or two of misrecognition, but it was obvious that I was greeting one woman as a friend and the other as a stranger. Awkward, especially as the attention should have been on Alison's new look, not my mild cognitive impairment.

Alison also told me one of her students complimented her on her hair, and said, 'Did you have that done for cancer?' Alison hadn't been particularly public about her illness, but thinking she was going to have to face lots of these queries, said, 'yes'. But then it became clear that the student thought Alison had cut or coloured her hair in support of cancer research.

And so we all go on, half-understanding each other, half-recognising each other, and only half thinking about other people.

8 comments:

Pavlov's Cat said...

It's sobering, isn't it.

My own area of weakness here is faces seen out of context. I once ran into a woman on Semaphore Road (the beach you've been to with me) whom I knew was incredibly familiar to me but I could not for the life of me put a name to the face. I'd worked closely with her in meetings at Arts SA on at least half a dozen days and had had several lengthy phone conversations with her -- but I'd never seen her out of the Arts SA building. There've been other, simliar experiences.

I also tend to have embarrassed, hesitant encounters of the kind you describe here with people whom I recognise but don't expect will recognise me, and don't want to either embarrass them or humiliate myself by saying hello.

No wonder it's such a relief to crawl under the doona at the end of the day, eh?

Dr. Virago said...

I definitely have the out-of-context problem Pavlov's Cat describes. The funniest instance was one of misrecognition out of context rather than failure to recognize someone: once in the early '90s I waved and cheerily greeted the actor Adam Sandler on a street in NYC because I thought I knew him from my university! (This was when he was still on Saturday Night Live, before he was a movie star.) To his credit, he waved and greeted me in return just as cheerily.

David Thornby said...

At the wedding of a friend several years ago, the father of the groom in his speech got a laugh by pointing out that one of the ushers (one of which was me) had failed to recognise the mother of the bride (who I'd met previously a handful of times) and asked her what side of the family she was from. I immediately decided it must have been me, though I had no recollection of it, because I knew the other usher wouldn't do something so stupid. I still don't know whether it was a joke or not.

I think you're right about half-understanding and half-recognising and half-thinking. The real problem in that is that our brains often automatically seem to fill in the other half for us, instead of just letting us know there's a gap. I know with mine, the half that my brain fills in always seems to lead me to embarass myself somehow.

Zoe said...

Could be worse. A doctor I used to work with would never approach or speak to someone she wasn't absolutely certain of knowing in case she'd just given them a pap smear.

Stephanie Trigg said...

Heh heh.

Yes, I think this whole thing is much more common than we might think. I just love having a name for it, and wonder why I am persisting with 'face-blindness' when there is such a lovely Greek word for it.

David Thornby said...

Hm, I think it's probably 'wrong' to feel that 'face-blindness' sounds a bit pejorative, but I can't help feeling that it does. On the other hand, 'prosopagnosia' is unknown enough, and Greek enough, to sound like it could well be an infection of some kind. Saying 'sorry, but I have a little prosopagnosia' might only lead to people backing away slowly!

Not that that doesn't have its potential uses.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Well, the further away they backed, the more of an excuse you'd have for not recognising them ...

innercitygarden said...

I've been known to cheerfully greet people I know believing them to be someone else entirely, who I also know. I have also been thrown completely by people thinking they know me. I tend to assume that they are right, and that I am demented. Particularly the time I was mis-recognised by someone who thought I was another woman, who is also called Kate.

A friend of my mother's had a rather long conversation with Geoffrey Rush one evening, thinking the whole time that he was the father of one of her students. He was quite nice about it.