Travelling with face blindness

MAY 4 2012

I have prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. It means I have trouble recognising people.

 

Girls in the desert on a Real Gap Experience

Girls are easier than boys (in more ways than one!). But the sunglasses aren't helping. (Image: Real Gap)

 

I don't have it as badly as some people, so I can still recognise friends, family and some celebrities. I find some people harder to recognise than others.

  • Men are more difficult than women
  • People with similar hair are hard to tell apart
  • Old people are harder than my contemporaries
  • Real people are more recognisable than those on screen or in pictures
  • Some people I have no trouble recognising (there's no way of predicting who these are, although the very attractive and the very ugly tend to be easier)
  • Any distinguishing marks (moles, piercings, stupid hair) make things a lot easier for me!
  • I can recognise children more easily than adults (except babies obviously, but I'm not the only one who thinks they all look the same!)

 

 

A generic photo of a generic baby
A generic photo of a generic baby (Image: stock.xchng)
 
 
This is how it manifests itself:
  • I can't recognise people out of context (eg if I see someone from work in the swimming pool)
  • Someone will come up to me when I'm not expecting to see them, and I think they've mistaken me for someone else 
  • I get into trouble for 'ignoring' people in the street - they don't believe I don't recognise them after meeting them several times.
  • If someone puts a hat on, or changes their hair, I often won't know who they are any more
 

Group of rock climbers at PGL camp
When everyone puts a hat on, it's a nightmare! (Image: PGL)
 
  • When meeting twins, I ask if they are identical
  • I avoid approaching someone I think I know in the street, because I can't tell if it's really them
  • I sometimes think two different people are the same person - this has got me into a few embarrassing situations in the past
  • I feel very unsettled when someone knows all about me and I haven't the foggiest idea who they are
  • I can't follow films very easily (especially if they have a lot of men of similar age, race, hair, etc). Flashbacks are a nightmare.
 

Reservoir dogs
A group of white men with the same hair, and you put them all in the same outfit too. Gee thanks Tarantino.
 
 
When I travel, I find that my face blindness presents new challenges. Here are some examples:
  • When I get up from my seat on the bus, train, or plane, it's hard to find it again because I might not recognise the person I'm sitting next to
  • I can't always tell if the hostel or guesthouse receptionist is the same person I was talking to earlier (usually I can bluff my way through this but if I've asked them for something, or am waiting for them to do something, it helps to know if I'm talking to the right person!)
  • Some group activities involve wearing gear like helmets, and this makes it hard for me to tell who's who. Scuba diving is worse, because people's faces are half covered (but at least you're not expected to talk to people underwater!). 
 
Scuba diver
Name tags on wetsuits would be an awesome idea (Image: PADI)
 
  • Often on a backpacker trail, you run into the same people periodically. And people tend to get offended if you appear not to remember them from 2 days ago!
  • Places where the locals tend to wear their hair the same (like Fiji) or where they cover it (Muslim countries, for example) are hard. Added to this is the fact that it's much harder for me to recognise someone new.
  • If I'm watching a film, in a hostel say, I don't like to bother people by asking them to explain it to me. And on a plane, when you're watching by yourself, it's pretty impossible to ask for help, even when you're sitting next to someone you know.

 

The Usual Suspects
Who is Keyser Soze? Not a clue mate. Seriously, I watched this whole film and I still didn't know.
 
 
I hope this post has given you some insight into what it's like living and travelling with face blindness. And remember, next time someone blanks you, remember that they might have prosopagnosia too!
 
 
Do you have any questions about face blindness, or do you want to tell us about your own experiences? Feel free to ask or share in the comments below!