Thursday, August 12, 2021

Recognizing Faces

I sometimes have trouble recognizing faces, matching faces to people I've interacted with in the past. It's not a disease like prosopagnosia, I can certainly tell the difference between faces and have no trouble with people I work with directly. But if I haven't seen someone in a while, I may not recognize them or confuse them for someone else. It's especially bad out of context, say running into a professor in my campus on the streets of Frankfurt. It's gotten worse with age but I've had challenges my whole life.

I have my coping mechanisms. I start a conversation to get enough clues to figure out who I'm talking to. I'll google an image before I'm supposed to meet someone I haven't seen in a while. Sometimes I'll just say "Remind me how to pronounce your name again". Sometimes I'll just say something embarrassing thinking the person I'm talking to is someone else.

Name tags are useful, if it isn't obvious you are looking at them. Zoom has been great--everyone's name is just there. I worry that 18 months of zoom meetings means I've lost much of my coping ability, much the way I can no longer navigate by maps the way I used to.

We have technological solutions but mostly unable to make use of them. Through the magic of machine learning, computers have gotten extremely good at recognizing faces. Nevertheless Google Googles actively prevented their one killer app, telling you who you were looking at, for privacy reasons. Perhaps they could limit it to people in your contacts with pictures you uploaded. It would only recognize people you already know.

I know I'm not alone, and I'm writing this post so others won't feel alone. And next time you see me and I look confused, remind me of your name.


  1. Remind me how to pronounce your name again?

    It's buh - aw - buh ... Bob.

  2. Same here. I can talk to a person, then meet them 1 hour later and not be sure if that's the same person, especially if I meet them in a different place / context. I've gotten into many embarrassing situations because of this but I usually just try to explain to people that I have this issue.

    I believe people learn to recognize faces at a very early age as babies, and this is when the area of the brain responsible for face recognition develops. Seeing that last year many people were wearing masks a lot, I'm wondering if babies were less exposed to various human faces, and whether this pandemic will result in this issue being more widespread in years to come.

  3. As someone who has taught many students, they know me (and my face) better than I know them. So often someone begins talking to me who was a student of mine a while back. I usually do the

    `so what are you up to now'

    to get a sense of who they are.

    I may also have problems like Lance has- hard to tell.

  4. This phenomenon is sometimes accompanied by the inability to describe faces. When I try to tell my wife who I just met by giving details about her or his appearance (because I really don't know her or his name), I can only give something like two eyes, one nose, ...

  5. Apparently, this problem had been well-known in old Rome. Rich
    people had a special servant, the nomenclator, solving this problem for them.