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An Unfamiliar Face

The following article is from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader.

(Image credit: Krisse)

Ever hear the expression “I never forget a face”? Well, there are some people who never remember a face, and there’s a reason for it— a loose connection in the brain.


There’s a part of your brain that processes faces. It’s located, according to MIT scientist Nancy Kanwisher, in the area “just behind and underneath, and a bit from your right ear.” It’s called the fusiform gyrus. (The gyrus is a ridge in the brain, and fusiform describes its shape— elongated and tapered at both ends.) Whenever you see someone you know, the fusiform gyrus tells you, “That’s Bob.” It also sends out messages to other parts of the body that add emotions to the information, such as “I like Bob. He’s my friend.” But what happens when an accident, illness, or hereditary gene disconnects the wiring between the fusiform gyrus and other parts of the brain?

There are people who may see a particular person’s face every day of their lives and still not recognize it. They see a nose, teeth, and cheeks, but when the features are put together, they cannot retain a memory of it. The medical term for this condition is prosopagnosia (from the Greek prosopon, for “face,” and agnosia, for “ignorance”), but it’s more commonly called face blindness. Researchers say that as many as 1 in 50 people suffer from some form of the condition.


Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, has it. So do Swedish Crown Princess Victoria and Markos Moulitsas, founder of the popular news blog Daily Kos. The artist Chuck Close, whose portrait of President Bill Clinton hangs in the National Gallery, didn’t recognize the woman he lived with for two years when he saw her a year after they broke up. Probably the best known sufferer of prosopagnosia is the neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Sacks, renowned author of the best-selling books The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, which was made into the 1990 Oscar-nominated film starring Robin Williams. A lifelong sufferer of extreme face blindness, Sacks has said that his condition is so severe he often doesn’t recognize his own face.

Sufferers of face blindness must develop alternate ways of identifying coworkers, friends, and family, so they remember single features— a mole, a specific style of clothing, or an extra toothy smile. Says Jane Goodall, “I usually make up for it by pretending to recognize everybody. And then, if they say, ‘But we haven’t met before,’ I say, ‘Well, you look just like somebody I know.’  ” Oliver Sacks has extremely large ears, so when he sees those ears in a mirror, he knows he’s looking at a reflection of himself. Prosopagnosia also makes watching movies or TV very confusing for a sufferer. When a viewer can’t identify faces, he or she can’t follow the story.

(Image credit: Flickr user Caroline)


Face blindness alone is hard enough to live with, but it can be even worse. When the brain receives visual information about a face, it connects with the amygdalae, which is the emotional-response part of the brain. That connection creates a reaction, such as, “I know you. I like you.” But if the connection between the two areas gets damaged, the brain may recognize the face but not have the emotional response that tells it, “This is a person I know.” The brain is convinced it is looking at an impostor. This condition is called Capgras syndrome, after French psychiatrist Jean Marie Joseph Capgras, who in 1923 treated a patient called “Madame M.” who insisted that her family members had been replaced by strangers who looked identical to them. The unusual part of this syndrome is that the sufferer can talk to a family member on the phone and recognize him or her because there is no damage in the link between the emotional and audio part of the brain. But the second the person appears, the sufferer will believe that same “family member” is an impostor.


Scientists have likened Capgras syndrome to the science-fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where aliens take over human bodies. But Capgras can expand beyond people to animals and objects. One man believed his pet poodle was an impostor. Another was convinced that his running shoes had been switched. Capgras syndrome is most often caused by damage to the brain, but it can also be a delusional result of schizophrenia. It is particularly dangerous if the sufferer is a violent person and is afraid of the “intruder” in his home.

In 2009 a student from New Zealand named Blazej Kot murdered his 28-year-old wife in Ithaca, New York, claiming she was an impostor. The jury didn’t buy his Capgras syndrome defense, and Kot was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. Ironically, there is a population of New Zealanders who have a very high incidence of Capgras syndrome— the Maori. Studies show that it is actually a common side effect of psychotic illnesses within this group. (Kot, however, is a New Zealander of Polish descent.)


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader. The 28th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts, and comes in both the Kindle version and paper with a classy cloth cover.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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It's hard following movies, but the worst is when you run into someone from work at another location...someone you have worked with for years... especially if it's your supervisor...
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A friend of mine can't memorize and recognize faces very well, though more to a mild degree than outright forgetting your own. He was abused as a child and thinks there is a connection, as other people he knows who went through similar trauma have facial recognition problems as well.
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I worked with a guy who could not remember faces. He would memorize shoes instead. I really pissed him off. Most men wear the same dress shoes every day. I rotate between about four depending on the outfit.
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I figured there was a part of the brain that stored faces and names. I taught school for 32 years and had to learn the names of some 125 new kids every year. As years passed, it became increasingly difficult. Made me think that my face/name area was full.
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