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.
Yes, I think everyone has a bit of that problem, but a lot of it might have to do with not paying attention. I agree with the ethnic thing- I had a big problem telling Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese people apart until I lived in Japan for seven months. Familiarity definitely helps!
Good point, Sharla. Familiarity is a big help. I'm Caucasian and since moving to New York, I've become more adept at discerning various types of Asian and South Asian faces. Definitely helps to live in a city that's rich in different cultures.
When I was a about 6 years old, I said to my dad that I thought all black people looked alike. He said maybe they thought all white people looked alike. It gave me something to think about and i looked harder for the differences after that. Now I have 2 half sisters and a half brother that are half black and I would be offended if someone said to me that all people from a certain race look the same. All people have different features if you take the time to look.
This is a very interesting topic. I've heard that a lot of your ability to distinguish faces for a particular race depends on which ethnicities you were exposed to at a young age (say during elementary school). Did any of your research suggest this? Personally, in retrospect, I have a harder time distinguising faces in races that weren't as well-represented in my tiny Tennessee town.
I'm Chinese and I have a hard time telling my own race apart from other Asians!
I just talk to anyone who wants to talk. I don't care where they came from or what race they are. Now, if I could just remember their NAMES..That would be an embarrassment, I love to overcome.
I'm obviously not the average person here, so my comments are likely going to be a bit far fetched for some of you. Prosopagnosia has significantly colored my approach to life and many of the personal choices I have made.

That being said, though, I can tell you that I do have substantial difficulties recognizing the people who are of any race or ethnic group, I have even more difficulties with those I have less experience with. When I was in high school, there were two black teachers. Only two of them. Still, I had some difficulty telling them apart. Its probably not even that they looked the same as much as it was that the physical differences between them were, for lack of a better phrase, of a different "physical vocabulary" that I was not accustomed to.

I am not immune to such difficulties though. On at least three occasions I can recall, somebody thought I was somebody they knew from many years ago. On one of these occasions the person was right (it boggles my mind how people do that) but on the other occasions, the people who thought they had identified me were completely wrong.

I guess it amazes me just how uncommon "mistaken identity" really is for most people as compared to how common it is for people to recognize each other correctly.

If you want to take a look at my website on prosopagnosia, you can find it here.
I have faceblindess. It's not about paying attention! If you are very good at retaining details, you can focus on the details of a persons looks and mitigate your faceblindness, but if you also suffer from an inability to retain this information, they you are pretty screwed. Imagine having the CEO of your company walk up to you a couple times a year and every time not knowing who he is! Even when you see his picture all the time. I couldn't find my mom in the airport last time I went to pick her up. When i was a kid I accepted rides with all sorts of strangers because they looked kinda like someone I knew. It used to scare my mom to death. I'd always say, "oh there's so and so's mom," and it would never be the right person.

Now it would be cool if Dr Gupta could do a segment on Dyspraxia. Most people don't know what it is and it's a pretty frustrating problem and greatly effects a persons ability to get a well paying job.
Generalizing racial appearances is not the same as Prosopagnosia. I've worked at a new job for 3 weeks and I just barely found out that my boss and the guy that interviewed me are NOT the same person. I had no idea. When I watch movies, I had to get clues from my wife so that I can tell who the characters are. Prosopagnosia (Face-blindness) is not a lack of focus. It is an inability to make sense of faces. I see comlete strangers all the time and think it is my wife or my parents. That will not go away by my simply learning to think harder.
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