The New Yorker recently published a piece by neurologist Oliver Sacks about prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces.
It’s a fascinating article because Sacks has the condition and writes well. Unfortunately, there is no linking to the article, but there is this from Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post.
You can also take a face recognition test at Faceblind.org
This is what it is like to be at the movies with me.
Me: Is that the same guy who was in the last scene, with the girl?
Wife: Yes. Shh.
Me: But he had a beard in the last scene.
Wife: No, he didn’t. Shhh.
Me: Are you sure?
Wife: Listen, you idiot. It’s Tom Cruise. The same Tom Cruise who was in the previous scene. It’s the same one who will be in the next scene. It’s the same one who had Renee Zellweger at hello in the last movie when you forgot who Tom Cruise was, and, yes, by the way, that was Renee Zellweger, not Kirsten Dunst, who looks nothing like Renee Zellweger and would not be confused for Renee Zellweger by anyone but you, okay?
Stranger in next seat: Shhh.
I have trouble recognizing and remembering faces. It is a mild form of a disorder called prosopagnosia, which in its most extreme form can cause you to look in a mirror and not recognize the person looking back at you.
My face-recognition dysfunction is pretty minor, but it is severely tested when watching a movie, a circumstance where you are suddenly presented with many unfamiliar people interacting in complicated ways, and you must learn to quickly tell them apart. I’m okay if a character has some dramatic distinguishing characteristic, or speaks in a distinctive way — I was just fine with the Wicked Witch of the West — but if the characters seem to be random assemblages of run-of-the-mill noses and eyes, lips and ears, I am in trouble.
In men, there is a certain intense, generic look that particularly confounds me. I cannot distinguish Liam Neeson from Ralph Fiennes from that guy who played Ingrid Bergman’s goody-two-shoes husband in “Casablanca.” All the same fella, far as I can tell. Also Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper.
With women, my problem is blondes. Renee Zellweger and Loretta Swit and Kirsten Dunst and Gwyneth Paltrow and Lana Turner. Same lady.
When watching the Oscar-winning film “The Departed,” I could not reliably distinguish Matt Damon from Leonardo DiCaprio, which proved to be a significant problem, because one was a good guy masquerading as a bad guy and one was a bad guy masquerading as a good guy. By the end of the film, many people were deceased, but I had no clear idea about who had done what to whom, and why.
Outside of the movies, I’m mostly okay, though I don’t believe I have ever in my life, once, been able to recognize someone out of context, and that can be an embarrassing problem. Do you know that risque two-people-meet-in-a-supermarket joke with the punch line, “No, I’m your son’s math teacher”? Well, I am that guy. Feel free to Google it.
Here is the worst thing that ever happened to me because of my condition:
Sometime after being hired as an editor by The Washington Post, I realized that a certain writer at the paper — one of the people whose work I most respected — detested me. I never talked to him about it because there didn’t seem any point. It wasn’t until years later that I learned from a third party what had happened. When I was being interviewed for the job, this man had gone out to lunch with me. We had talked deeply and richly about subjects of mutual interest, and he had given a glowing report back to management. I was hired, at least in part, on the basis of his recommendation.
But when I arrived at the newspaper a month later, I passed him in the hall — many times — and never thanked him or even acknowledged him. He concluded, with ample justification, that I was a total jerk. The fact is, I had no recognition of who he was, and by the time I figured it out, the damage was done.
To the guy in question: I’m really sorry, and I hope you recognize yourself from this anecdote. If it helps, you’re the one who looks kind of like Sean Connery. Or, possibly, Dustin Hoffman.