Face Off

Living with prosopagnosia.

Is facial recognition reliable as a singular means of identification?

Celebrities, the war on terror, and why I may make fewer identity mistakes.

A picture of two similarly looking celebrities.
A picture of two similarly looking celebrities.
Every time I hear of situations of mistaken identity, whether the consequences ultimately wind up being very serious when the CIA is involved in holding captive an innocent person who was mistaken for a terrorist, or the consequences wind up being a bit silly when a collection of media photographers all mistook Debbie Harry for Lindsay Lohan, it causes me to reflect on just how important facial recognition is to everybody who does not have prosopagnosia.  I also can't help but wonder whether people who do not have prosopagnosia rely, perhaps, too heavily on this mysterious facial recognition skill of theirs, especially since it seems prone to causing identity errors to occur frequently enough.

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Most people, of course, don't even think about such problems.  Why would they?  For them, facial recognition is as natural as the process of thinking.  I've often asked people how they recognize faces, and I have never received a satisfactory answer.  "It just happens.  I don't even think about it," is the usual answer I receive, and yet, as I have pointed out before, the consequences of recognition failure can be just as serious for me as they can be for the criminal justice system.

So, what exactly is one to do?

As a person already at a distinct disadvantage in this area, I make an effort to only rely upon identification clues which tend not to change too often.  (Psssst, Glenn, faces don't exactly change that often.)  I understand that, but they also have a tendency to look similar, even to people who can be very discerning and don't have prosopagnosia.  Unless you happen to be a super recognizer, that probably isn't going to help you too much.  (On that note, why didn't the CIA seek out super recognizers to train to identify terrorists so that this kind of mistake would never have occurred in the first place?)

For better or for worse, I am not a super recognizer.  I am a person with prosopagnosia, which means I have had to develop a wide array of coping strategies to help me interact socially in a way which at least appears "normal", whatever the heck that is supposed to mean.  I can have lengthy conversations with people who recognize me and the person I am conversing with will think I have recognized them.  While my acting may be good, this can be an extraordinarily frustrating experience for me.  I can be certain only that I had an interaction with a person.  I can never be certain of who that person is.  Even when I directly ask who the person is after providing a brief explanation of prosopagnosia, I am frequently surprised that the identity information is of little value to me.  A name is not too helpful without an event or collection of events to associate the name with.  

Having prosopagnosia also poses a variety of personal safety challenges for me. As a child, how did I know who was a safe adult and who was a stranger?  They were all strangers to me, after all.  

As an adult, the only difference is that I have some ability to control, or at the very least influence, my surroundings.  I can choose the types of places I go, when I go there, and how long I choose to stay.  I could still be assaulted, or worse, and because of my prosopagnosia, I would have little recourse, so I must remain hyper vigilant.  

Another strategy I utilize is to deliberately not try to recognize people.  Since I know that I am far more likely to be wrong if I think I have recognized somebody, I generally don't respond to any feelings of recognition I might experience until I have absolute proof of the identity of the person.  Usually, this comes from their acknowledgement of me, but sometimes, because I place such an enormous amount of weight on the location I can expect to find specific people, I will attempt to initiate a conversation with somebody I think I have recognized in that location.  When I am right, it is a feeling of exhilaration, a "Eureka!" moment.  When I am wrong, it is just another prosopagnosia moment for me.  

The good news is that I am not wrong often because I don't trust my own recognition skills and instincts.  Perhaps if other people did not rely so heavily on their recognition skills, such celebrity-look-alike and terrorist-look-alike mistakes would not occur as frequently.  Maybe, just maybe, we could all learn to recognize each other for who we are on the inside, just as I do, instead of relying almost exclusively on what we can see on the outside.  I happen to think that would create deeper and more meaningful relationships for all of us, not just for me.  If that happens, surely, the entire world would benefit as a result.

 

©2012 Glenn Alperin

Teaser images © and courtesy of Lawrence Schwartzwald and SPW/Splash News.  Special thanks to both for being extremely supportive of this effort.  For the benefit of any readers who may have prosopagnosia or who may be unfamiliar with the two people in this image, the photograph on the left is of Debbie Harry by Lawrence Schwartzwald and the photograph on the right is of Lindsay Lohan by SPW/Splash News.

 

If this blog entry interests you, and you would like to be notified of future blog entries I publish as I publish them, you may join the announcement-only Glenn Alperin Blog Yahoo group.

Glenn Alperin is a writer who has prosopagnosia.

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