Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is a neurological condition that affects an individual’s ability to recognise familiar faces.
The name comes from the Greek – prosop (meaning face) & agnosia (meaning a lack of knowledge).
For some people it is the result of a specific brain injury or trauma acquired prosopagnosia, but more commonly (and usually going unrecognised) it is a lifelong condition known as developmental prosopagnosia.
Acquired Prosopagnosia (AP)
Acquired Prosopagnosia (AP) describes the face recognition difficulties that the result of an injury to the brain (such as after encephalitis, a stroke or a head injury). Face recognition difficulties may be the only affect of such an event, but more commonly brain injury tends to affect a number of brain regions, so that face recognition difficulties may be just one of several symptoms of brain damage.
Specialist information and support is available from voluntary organisations – by contacting the organisation or by searching for ‘prosopagnosia’ on their websites:
Developmental prosopagnosia (DP)
Face recognition ability occurs on a spectrum, ranging from those people who have severe difficulty recognising faces – ‘prosopagnosics’, to those termed ‘super recognisers’ at the other end of the scale. DP affects over 2% of the population – approximately 1.2 million in the UK. Most individuals are unaware of why they can struggle to recognise others, but are conscious of having developed strategies for identifying other people, in order to manage everyday life.
Gender, ethnicity and age
Research at present suggests that the developmental prosopagnosia occurs equally frequently in men and women, and in all ethnic groups. Though found in all age groups, face recognition is a complex process and takes practice with skills improving into our 20s. A decline in ability, alongside other cognitive skills, is common in later life.
Causes and Associated Conditions
Though there is some evidence that developmental prosopagnosia runs in families, the cause is not yet known. It could have a genetic base or be a skill that the infant doesn’t develop, or perhaps a combination of both. It is sometimes referred to as ‘congenital prosopagnosia’.
There seem to be associations with certain other conditions (e.g. Turner’s Syndrome) and a higher incidence of prosopagnosia has been reported amongst individuals with autism.
Other Face Recognition Conditions
Beyond face blindness, there are a range of other face recognition conditions. These include the polar opposite experience of ‘super recognisers’, who may find it hard to explain how they can pick out a face in the crowd, or recognise a passer-by in a new location.
Face recognition is not a single function in the brain, but involves a number of processes. Where very specific parts of this process are disrupted people can experience unusual response in terms of their sense of familiarity such as Hyperfamiliarity or Capgras Syndrome.
Finding out more about Prosopagnosia
For many people just realising that their difficulties are the result of a recognised neurological condition and that they are “not alone” makes a huge difference.
“My self-esteem has risen exponentially since I discovered that it isn’t my fault, and that this is a recognised condition.”
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