Can't identify pals, family? You may be face-blind

NTU cognitive neuroscience researcher Dr Burns goes over neuroimaging results with a participant.

IMAGINE not being able to recognise your closest friends or even your family members if you meet them on the streets.

This may seem hard to fathom but for some who suffer from prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, an inability to recognise faces, it is their everyday reality.

Research on this condition is relatively scant and has been ongoing for only about 10 years, Edwin Burns, a 36-year-old researcher at Nanyang Technological University, told My Paper.

Dr Burns, who has researched the condition for five years, is hoping to raise awareness of it and reach out to sufferers in a study believed to be the first of its kind here.

"A study of around 700 people in Hong Kong found that it occurs in one in 40 people. That translates into 70,000 people here in Singapore," said the post-doctoral fellow from Britain, whose research in cognitive neuroscience covers face processing, memory and neuropsychology.

Previous studies released in 2014 have estimated that one in 50 people or 2 per cent of the world's population suffers from face-blindness.

People with developmental face-blindness - which is distinct from face-blindness that is acquired through injury such as head trauma - start to be aware of their condition typically when they start high school at 12 or university at 19, he said.

Developmental face-blindness is believed to be a lifelong condition, and scientists suspect that it occurs when an area of the brain associated with recognising faces never fully develops during childhood to function as it should.

Symptoms vary in severity and type from individual to individual, but generally include a difficulty in recognising faces, especially when they are taken out of context, such as bumping into a colleague in a mall.

They also often struggle to recognise celebrities' faces on TV or in movies.

Dr Burns cited studies done in Britain, which suggest that those with face-blindness use parts of the brain used to identify words and objects to identify faces.

However, it is unclear if this is a coping strategy or if the brain was originally formed this way, he said.

People with face-blindness also often develop their own coping mechanisms, such as identifying others through distinct individual facial features, such as a large nose or hairstyles.

The severity of the condition varies.

In extreme cases, some may not remember their family members or their own faces, while others may have trouble recognising only colleagues or acquaintances in different environments.

"Those with face-blindness often feel that others find it much easier to recognise faces than they do, and may feel guilty for not being able to," said Dr Burns.

"They may also blame themselves for not paying enough attention, or are often told that they don't seem good with faces."

For people with face-blindness, social situations can be very stressful.

They may fear being unable to recognise their boss on the street, an acquaintance at a party, or even their own date. Networking with colleagues, clients or customers may also be a challenge.

There is no known cure but researchers are developing computer-based training tasks in the hope that sufferers can improve their memory for faces, he added.

Dr Burns hopes to draw up such a series of tasks specific to Singapore to help those with face-blindness here, as well as create more tests to diagnose the condition.

Currently, he has a "famous faces test" for Chinese faces, featuring Singaporean personalities such as actress Fann Wong, but he wants to add tests catering to other races.

He is also working on a one-stop website where anyone can find out more about the little-known condition or take a "famous faces" test.

'I didn't know person in the mirror was me'

SHARIFAH* first realised she had face-blindness when she was 11. "I'd look in the mirror and think that the person I was looking at looked nice, but didn't even know it was me," said the 22-year-old student.

She recognises people by their dressing and postures and "barely knows" any of her friends' faces.

Sharifah, who says she does not recognise her own face or, on occasion, her brother's, said some people she has told about her condition find it "cool that it's a legitimate thing".

But others do not believe her or think that she is weird.

"Some, especially close friends, are sad that I actually identify them by their favourite jacket and that they can never be more than these objects in my eyes," she said.

She turns to drawing as a coping mechanism, as it helps her break down a person's facial features and gives her time to "really absorb faces so I can memorise things like what makes a face attractive or what makes my friend's face different from another friend's".

Sharifah, who feels there is not much awareness of face-blindness, said having the condition has helped her value a person's character more than looks, as "it really doesn't make much of a difference how they look".

She relies on hairstyles to pinpoint identities

MICHELLE*, a 39-year-old Singaporean civil servant, first became aware of her condition when she was 19.

She had trouble recognising people unless she saw and interacted with them daily for longer than six months.

"It's highly stressful whenever I'm in situations that demand my automatic identification of a person, such as a colleague with whom I'm expected to have become very familiar with already," she said.

She smiles at "everyone just in case I'm supposed to have known them already", and feels that the condition is "highly stressful" as it is not visible to others.

"It is especially stressful socially because it may appear very rude and insincere when I repeatedly do not recognise someone I work with," said Michelle, who relies on hairstyles to keep track of people.

She added that it limits her job options, and even left a profession to avoid making home visits in the evening hours on her own.

She once mistook a friendly stranger as one of her customers and followed him to his car.

As Michelle finds the condition one that is not commonly known to people, she has told only her family and her closer friends.

Hard job remembering clients

AS A boy, Kawal had trouble remembering faces but thought it was normal.

However, as he grew up, he started having difficulty recognising people he had recently spent time with and got confused trying to identify actors in movies.

The 35-year-old IT consultant realised he had face-blindness about five years ago, and finds it hard to recall faces of people with whom he does not interact regularly.

Speaking about a food stall vendor whom he visits two to three times a week for more than a year, Kawal said: "If he meets me at a bus stop and is not in his regular get-up, chances are I will not recognise him."

Kawal, who came here from India in 2008 to work, also has trouble placing someone when the person changes hairstyle, although he can remember the faces of those closest to him.

He usually apologises when he fails to recognise someone, and while the person will sympathise, he is usually "not actually aware what face-blindness is", Kawal said.

He copes by looking for a distinctive feature in a person's appearance or behaviour.

"Things get even more difficult at work," said Kawal. "My job requires me to meet lots of clients. It takes me a lot of time and many meetings to get familiar with new faces."

He has "stopped worrying about it emotionally" and has started telling people about the condition to raise awareness.

Teacher spends hours memorising students' faces

EACH year, Kate spends a few months studying the photos of students in her classes for more than an hour every night, trying to remember a sea of faces that are indistinguishable to her.

The 29-year-old Australian teacher was 22 when she found out she had face-blindness.

Kate, who lives in Singapore, puts "very conscious effort" into reciting to herself a person's key features, such as a chipped tooth, a peculiar mole or a unique piercing, to remember a face.

"If I did not do this, I would recall faces about as well as someone else would recall, say, the elbows of people they meet," she said.

Kate added that not recognising someone quickly is a "huge social faux pas" and hopes for heightened awareness of face-blindness.

As a child, she was frequently scolded or punished for what was perceived as rudeness.

"I was convinced that I must be stupid because I knew I was not forgetting people on purpose or trying to be rude, but other people just seemed to be able to remember others easily," she noted.

Kate does not keep up with celebrity culture, as "recognising famous people seems to be an integral part of it".

"I find kind, genuine facial expressions beautiful on anyone. A tendency to sneer will make even a supermodel look hideous to me," she added.

If you or someone you know suspects they have face-blindness and want to be tested for it, contact researcher Burns at eburns@ntu.edu.sg

lydialam@sph.com.sg

*pseudonym


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