Prosopagnosia is a condition classified as a neurological disorder. Its primary characterization is the person afflicted by it cannot recognize faces. According to the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), prosopagnosia is also known as "facial agnosia". In layman's terms, it is called "face blindness". The term comes from the Greek words for "face" and "lack of knowledge".

There are a few different levels of impairment associated with prosopagnosia, some of which are more severe than others.

  • The affected person may have trouble recognizing a familiar face.
  • He or she may not be able to tell the difference between unknown faces.
  • Some people cannot recognize their own faces.

In the most severe cases of "face blindness", the person cannot tell a face as being different from another type of object. This condition has been likened to dyslexia, except instead of having problems reading words or numbers, it is one with faces.

Studying Henry Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man’ - Prosopagnosia (Face Blindness) / Logo Avatar Blindness
Credit: Surian Soosay via Flickr/CC by 2.0

Author description: "Studying Henry Magritte’s ‘The Son of Man’ - Prosopagnosia (Face Blindness) / Logo Avatar Blindness"

A Unique Type of Affliction

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NINDS says this is not a memory issue or related to other problems, such as a learning disorder or impaired vision. It is attributed to something in the brain that renders it unable to "coordinate the neural systems that control facial perception and memory." 1

It is believed that prosopagnosia could result from a brain injury, such as a stroke or traumatic brain injury (TBI). Experts also now say that some people are born with it and this type is classified as a neurodevelopmental condition, although, some neurodegenerative diseases may also cause the face blindness.

Problems People With Prosopagnosia Experience

One of the most significant problems associated with face blindness is that it can be create problems for the person afflicted in social settings. It can be difficult not to be able to recognize people, especially those who are close friends or family. To the person affected, the faces appear to be ones of strangers.

At this time there is no treatment or cure for prosopagnosia. Experts say people often turn to other prompts and strategies such as other physical attributes, hair color, voices, or even clothing, to recognize people rather than looking at their faces.

Once thought to quite rare, it turns out face blindness is not as unusual as it was once thought. Psychology Today reports that approximately one in 50 people could be affected by face blindness at some level. 2 Much public awareness about prosopagnosia has occurred in recent years and, as a result, more people have come forward about their experiences.

Actor Brad Pitt Shares His Experience

In May 2013 actor Brad Pitt shared in an interview with Esquire magazine (published June/July 2013 issue), that he believes he has prosopagnosia, according to U.S. Magazine. 4

"So many people hate me because they think I'm disrespecting them," the actor confessed in the interview. He indicated it doesn't happen because he's not paying attention; he says the faces just do not register for him. He said because of this he's often "pissed people off" for not remembering them from earlier meetings. In some cases even meaningful conversations don’t trigger the memory. He indicated that if he's given some context of the earlier discussion that helps him recall the person’s face that he was talking to.

"SO many people hate me because they think I'm disrespecting them," Pitt told Esquire. "You get this thing like, ‘You're being egotistical. You're being conceited.'"

Since this time Pitt has been mentioned often in the media being associated with this condition.

Brad Pitt
Credit: DoD News via Flickr/CC by 2.0

In 2013 actor Brad Pitt came forward with a candid interview about prosopagnosia. This photo was taken during the release of "Fury" , a 2014 movie he starred in.

Scientists Seek the Key to Prosopagnosia

According to a January 2015 report by Stanford News, scientists at the university have “discovered that the structure of the wiring in the brain is key” to being able to predict prosopagnosia.

“This relationship between brain structure and behavioral function will help to determine what is driving face blindness,” said Kalanit Grill-Spector, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University. “Does it develop through life experience or are children born with it?” 5

This is a first in the quest to learn more about how face blindness comes about as it links the brain’s wiring (or “white matter”) to the condition. Since everyone’s brain is different, this could help explain the various ways this condition emerges.

It was once thought only injury or trauma led to face blindness, but scientists are discovering it could be something that is part of their genetic makeup. The latter type is suggested by some to be the more common type. 6

How Do People Cope?

Like other types of medical and/or physical conditions. People find coping mechanisms to help get around their inability to recognize faces.

  • Try to make identification through a voice
  • Look for a unique facial feature (i.e. in the nose or eyes)
  • Watch body movement and see if any characteristics stand out

Others may look for styles, clothes, scents or hairstyles. However, this can prove challenging because these things can be changed. Many people who experience face blindness also experience social problems, including anxiety, depression, disinterest in people, inattentiveness and various types of phobias. There are some people that cope fine with it and do not experience any negative effects.

human eye
Credit: Pezibear via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

People who are affected by "face blindness" will use different strategies to help them identify people. For instance, a person may focus in on another person's eyes to help them remember.

Prosopagnosia is not as rare as it was once thought to be, and researchers are actively looking for more answers to try to find more about this once elusive condition.