When I was in secondary school there was this girl I found very interesting. One day she’d see me and say a very lively Hi and be very friendly and we’d talk and stuff. Another day she’d just walk right past me as if we’d never met. At first I used to think I may have offended her in someway. But I soon realized there wasn’t really any pattern to it. It seemed some days she just didn’t (or didn’t want to) recognize me. I found it extremely weird, but I never asked her anything about it and she’s like that to this day. Almost like she has a split personality.
I was recently listening to Health Check on the BBC World Service. The episode was about Prosopagnosia or in layman’s terms: the inability to recognize faces. By the time the show was over I was telling myself that, that secondary school friend of mine must have had it. It was a thoroughly interesting and educating programme and if you do have a half-hour, you should listen to it.
There are different stages and severity of the condition. Some people just can’t recognize the face of a person they don’t know well. So if they see a person once they won’t be able to recognize them if they saw them later. For others, it’s so bad that they can’t recognize their family members by face. Some can’t even recognize their own face in a mirror!!! (You really should hear some of the stories in that BBC documentary).
Apparently it’s a condition that affects up to 2% of the general population. I know most of us use the excuse “Oh I’m not good with faces” when we fail to recognize someone we should. But can you imagine what it would be like if you REALLY couldn’t recognize faces. Imagine how uncomfortable socializing would be. You’d really not be able to recognize people and yet people would think you were a snob. (Honestly if I hadn’t heard about this from the BBC, I’d be very skeptical).
The programme also went on to talk about the extreme opposite: the super face-recognizers. It appears quite a few people also tend to trust in their capabilities to remember faces. But research seems to suggest we’re not as good as we think in identifying people we don’t know well. This could have serious implications e.g. people being wrongly convicted because the witness has “identified” a suspect. Of course there are facial recognitions software that can help. According to the documentary the best one so far has an accuracy of 97%. Impressive right?………NOT!!! So, imagine this software is in an airport that has 200,000 people passing through it everyday. That means the software would correctly identify 194,000. That also means the software would get a whopping 6000 faces wrong! Still, it’s better than having Prosopagnosia.