Tuesday, February 06, 2007
Faces and races: Maybe we're all a bit blind
What if every face you saw was new to you every time you saw it? That's what face blindness can be like. Also known as prosopagnosia, face blindness is a visual memory problem that makes it hard for some people to remember the faces of people they've already seen. Sometimes they can't even remember the faces of family or they have trouble remembering what they themselves look like.
As many as one out of 50 people might have some form of face blindness, according to the latest studies. That means someone I know probably has the condition - that someone could even be me! Heck, I've been known to forget a few faces, much to my chagrin.
But that statistic also reminds me of a funny scene in "Rush Hour 2" where Chris Tucker accidentally punches Jackie Chan in the middle of a fight with Asian gangsters and then apologetically but exasperatedly explains, "All y'all look alike!" They make fun of something I bet is pretty common: thinking people from another race look similar.
It's happened to me a few times, where someone gets me and another south Asian woman mixed up. I know it's an honest mistake, so I usually just brush it off, but now I'm wondering whether my transgressors could have some sort of ethno-specific face blindness?
When I asked Dr. Brad Duchaine, a face blindness expert at University College London, he said a lot of people who are face blind admit it's harder to recognize faces from other races. But then again, if you're the only one who's of a different race from everyone else, he points out, it may be easier for a face blind person to recognize you. There's not enough research to prove whether some people are more blind to certain ethnicities than others.
While I was researching the subject, though, I learned something about race and physical features that I think is worth mentioning: Humans are 99.9% genetically identical to one another. There's only a teeny tiny bit of genetic variation among us, and about 85% of that variation exists within local groups of people, among Romanians or among Bengalis, for example.
Also, certain facial features thought to be linked to race are actually spread out all over the globe. For example, Germans tend to have nose widths more similar to Arabs than to Norwegians, despite their respective races. So even though genetic differences do exist among us, those differences don't necessarily reflect race. Interesting.
Anyway, let's be honest here - do you sometimes have a hard time distinguishing people from another race? Or, have you been confused with another person from your race? Or both?
To learn more about face blindness, and to take a diagnostic face recognition test, go to www.faceblind.org.
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