Friday, January 28, 2011


Autism used to be like pregnancy -- you either had the condition or you didn't. But updates to medical science eventually recognized that autism is in truth a spectrum, from those completely ignorant of the fact that other human beings have internal lives and communicate these by social cues, through the various shades of Asberger's, to simple difficulties understanding the meanings of social interactions. Now the same continuum is proposed by researchers at Harvard for prosopagnosia.

This matters to me because I'm pretty sure I'm somewhere on that continuum. In its purest form, prosopagnosia is a complete inability to recognize faces, no matter how often you see them -- including one's spouse and children. I'm not as bad as all that. But I do have much trouble remembering faces, and frequently people think I'm (pick one) (a) snubbing them,(b) dim-witted, or (c) self-centered, because I can't remember who they are until I get an external cue.

Voices help. But, as Harvard researchers recently declared, we semi-prosopagnosiacs use other clues, too, in our frantic search for a name to go with that person confidently claiming acquaintanceship. I try to memorize hair color and style, glasses type, dress. Then the person will dye her hair, get contacts, and become a devotee of Zac Posen, and I'm lost again.

I have the same trouble with movies (another common symptom). I confuse actors unless they look very different from each other, rendering plots hard to follow. Nor do I recognize actors from previous movies. I didn't recognize Sigourney Weaver in GALAXY QUEST until the credits rolled. She went blond.

It's an embarrassing problem. However, it could be worse -- I could have been a politician. Writers have a certain leeway in being weird. Or we can just stay in our studies and write. I always know who my fictional characters are.


Tony Dismukes said...

Oliver Sacks talks a bit about his own prosopagnosia in his latest book, The Minds Eye.

It occurred to me just now that although I've read a few things by people who have prosopagnosia in real life, I've never read a work of fiction with a character who has the condition. I wonder if such a thing exists.

Saints and Spinners said...

I would be interested in fiction (particularly science-fiction!) where a character had some form of prosopagnosia and it was a fluid part of the narrative.

I found this particular post because of my Google alert for prosopagnosia (I believe my daughter has it). However, I am also a fan of your work.

TK Kenyon said...

I have often thought that I have a "mild case." If I see someone "out of context," I have a terrible time placing them, or if they make a change to their appearance. My 5th grade teacher shaved off his mustache and I thought he was a substitute teacher for 3 days.


Nancy Kress said...

Three days! That's something I might do.

Jane said...

Nancy Kress's sister here and I have the same problem, so perhaps it's genetic. To diffuse someone being offended, I tend to make light and say, "Please forgive me. I have a horrible memory for faces. I'm lucky I recognize my dad when I see him."

Nancy Kress said...

I have a sister named Jane??

Lou said...

What a brave post, Nancy!

I know that this is something you probably keep to yourself, but it's nice to see that this is a struggle for you.

Now, of course, I'm struck with a conundrum. Do I introduce myself as "that obnoxious Lou guy" next time we see one another, or do I assume that you know MY face well enough to recognize me instantly?

I'll err on the side of caution, perhaps, and say "Hey Nancy! It's me, Lou, that obnoxious guy..."


Thank you so much for sharing this. It makes complete sense and does explain some things.


Orion said...

Oh, dear. I should not have let my buzz cut grow out.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Memory is strange indeed... I find my music memory is solid, but other things

What was I talking about? It was about cats, right? Cats and their strange ways?

Jude said...

I have mirror touch synesthesia. Most people who have it seem to respond strongly to pain, but for me, if you touch yourself (especially on the face), I'll feel it. I send my friend an email every time I figure out something new about it. Most recently, I realized it's why I instantly recognize it when someone is left-handed--it *feels* wrong to me. I wrote to the main researcher in Scotland who said that she hasn't encountered anyone else who acquired social phobia along with the mirror touch--her subjects appear to be psychologically normal. She said that perhaps mine is stronger than the average person's. I think this is why I like SF so much--my life has always felt like an SF story. At least they finally proved that it's real.