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Prosopagnosia

"You walked right past me," she said, accusingly. "I even smiled at you."

I could feel my face getting hot. When Iím stumped, I often do the worst possible thingóI fall silent. Here was a girl I had been interested in ever since I first saw her back in September. Pretty and vivacious, she embodied all the social graces that I lacked. And she had spoken to me several times in class. Now, I didnít know what to say.

"People told me you were stuck up," she continued, "but I didnít believe them."

I stammered out a weak kind of apology, but she wasnít appeased. Eventually, she turned and walked away. As I watched her go down the crowded hall, I felt ashamed and worthless.

That high school experience was one I would remember, but it wasnít a rare thing. I didnít realize how so preoccupied I was with things going on in my head that I didnít notice what was going on around me. Especially the people around me.

Sora Song, a writer in Time, describes a condition in which people are unable to identify faces. Itís called prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. Once thought extremely rare and caused by some kind of injury to the temporal lobe, prosopagnosia is being recognized as much more prevalent than had been thought. And it seems to have a genetic factor, as well. People suffering from this malady are sometimes unable to identify even their own face in a mirror. Thatís an extreme example, however. Milder cases can be compensated for through training and practice. Picking out specific features, such as hair or glasses, or even a nose mole, helps some distinguish friend from stranger.

Now, Iím reasonably sure that I donít suffer from that unfortunate condition, my adolescent difficulties notwithstanding. (And I certainly wasnít alone in my mental clumsiness at that age.) But reading that magazine article today reminded me of my discomfort among groups of people, such as the senior community I live in. Oh, yes, I almost always smile and wave at people I pass on the streetóeven when I have no idea who they are. Iím aware that many more people know me on sight than I know enough to even remember their names when they greet me. I practice all the time, looking at certain people in a room and sorting through all the names I can remember, trying to find a match. Iím much more able to recognize a face than I am to link it to a personís name. Donít expect me to introduce you to someone without giving me time to run a Google search in my head. Iíve been known to introduce my wife by her predecessorís name. (Picture that late eveningís discussion.)

Researchers have determined that our ability to recognize faces is one of our most basic skills. A baby shows a preference for her motherís face very early in life, and quickly learns to distinguish between male and female faces. No doubt itís a survival skill. Those who lack that ability have created a number of supportive Internet forums and Web sites.

Iíve wondered, sometimes, if the reason Iím so readily identified in our senior community is because I have a beard. Of the five hundred, more or less, residents here, I think I may be the only one. (When I lived in Ann Arbor, of course, I was not so readily recognized.) It does help my self-esteem, however, being among people of my own age and sharing the discomforts of steadily eroding memory. Itís reassuring, and sometimes almost fun, to greet someone and have her confess that she has forgotten my name.

At community gatherings, sometimes the facilitators will bring out the little name badges and felt-tip pens. Itís surprising how many peopleóeven people I knowópeer down at my badge when they think Iím not watching. It occurred to me once to write on my badge, "Itís okayóI donít remember yours, either."

So theyíve identified a syndrome for "always forgetting a face." Is there one for "I never remember names?"

July 13, 2006

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