For 80 years I lived with a mental disorder of which I was unaware until I bought a copy of The Oxford Reference to the Mind with a book voucher present. I suddenly found myself reading a description of myself.
From childhood I resented going to parties. On my first invitation to a street birthday party I asked Mum if I could take a book to read. Mum thought I was joking until I came out with my favourite book under my arm. I have always felt uneasy among groups as I could never identify friends. I suffered frequent embarrassment as I could not know if I had previously met people who obviously knew me.
Prosopagnosia, also known as Faceblindness is a deficit of the mind which prevents one from registering the image of people's faces for future recognition. Most people on seeing someone approaching will see an image of a face as opposed to a "thing". The image is sent to the fusiform gyrus, a part of the cortex in the left temple where the image is compared with a "file" of known faces. If the face is identified, motor neurons arrange a smile and outstretched hand to acknowledge recognition. Meanwhile, another "file" is searched to give the brain subjects for conversation, (recollection of last meeting, health of wife, members of family, &c.).
I have watched people walking towards me and giving me a quick glance before looking away. I estimate that within 1/50 second my face image has been examined and rejected as unknown. This extraordinary speed of mental activity is probably the fastest work called on by the mind.
Faceblindness is a misnomer as I can see eyes, noses and mouths the same as others but cannot recognise differences from one to another. I would prefer "facial amnesia" as a more accurate term. Prosopagnosia is not malignant, contagious, painful nor life threatening to sufferers nor to their acquaintenances. It therefore does not attract research grants.
Nevertheless, for sufferers it is very embarrassing. I can identify family members and a small circle of close friends. When I go to the butchers I greet Garry, who has his name outside, and wears a blue apron. But if I met Garry in Myers (Melbourne Department store), I would walk past him without acknowledging him. I repeat this snubbing of friends daily. When I walk in my local shopping strip I wear a half smile, ready for someone to identify me first. When they stop for a chat I have to desperately scan for a reference that I can respond to. Many are already aware of my problem as I have described the symptoms to them.
I was outside the chemists (pharmacists, drug store) talking to a couple who were aware of my trouble when a chap walked past us and called out, "Hi Ken!" and I replied, "Hi!" My friend asked who he was and laughed out loud when I replied, "I've never seen him before in my life!" I then walked into the chemists. I was followed by the man, who said "Hi Ken. I'm Daryl!" I immediately knew he was a regular visitor to our house when my wife was typing notes for him for the Neighborhood Watch group we shared in common! He had heard my reply and the loud laugh outside.
When we go to see a movie it always worries me if there are more than three characters as I cannot identify any more. We recently saw a movie called "Lantana" which seemed to consist of three couples who recklessly jumped in and out of each other's partners bed. This means there were 9 possibilities of sharing a bed with someone different (assuming the men avoided hopping into bed with another man). I kept whispering to my wife "Is he the man who was in bed with the blonde (or brunette)?" and similar questions throughout the performance. It was a strain for her to follow the plot with me whispering and was not too good for nearby patrons either. You can see how I used to enjoy Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck with their well defined faces.
I am certain that there are many who, like me are unaware of their condition. There is a support group website, FACEBLIND@MAELSTROM.STJOHNS.COM. I suggest if you recognise this deficit in yourself, you contact this group who will be sympathetic and supportive. I also would be pleased to hear from any other Australian who may recognise themselves here. Write to me here and tell me about it Ken Green aka Caligital.