Face Blindness (Prosopagnosia)

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP, ACRN, CPH on August 21, 2017Written by Ana Gotter on August 21, 2017

What is face blindness?

Face blindness, or prosopagnosia, is a brain disorder. It’s characterized by the inability to recognize or differentiate faces.

People with face blindness may struggle to notice differences in faces of strangers. Others may even have a hard time recognizing familiar faces. It’s estimated to affect about 2 percent of the general population.

What are the symptoms of face blindness?

The most common symptom of face blindness is an inability to recognize or discriminate between faces. This may make forming relationships more difficult, both in a personal and professional setting. It may be extremely difficult for people with face blindness to identify a person who shows up in a different setting or context than the one they’re used to.

People with minor prosopagnosia may just struggle to differentiate or identify faces of strangers or people they don’t know well. Those with moderate to severe face blindness may struggle to recognize faces of people they see regularly, including family members and close friends. In very severe faces, people with face blindness may not recognize their own faces. This may cause social anxiety or depression.

If you have prosopagnosia, you won’t forget a few faces every so often; it will be a consistent and recurring problem that doesn’t go away.

If your child has face blindness, they may:

  • wait for you to wave before they come over when you’re picking them up from school or an event
  • approach strangers thinking they’re you, or someone they know, when they’re supposed to go to a specific person
  • not recognize familiar people, like neighbors, close relatives, or family friends, especially when they see them out of context
  • become clingy or withdrawn in public places
  • have difficulty following plots of characters in movies or TV shows
  • have difficulty making friends
  • seem withdrawn at school, but confident at home

Many of these symptoms can be attributed to other things, including shyness. Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you’re concerned.

What causes face blindness?

Prosopagnosia is thought to be caused by abnormalities, impairment, or damage of a fold in the brain called the right fusiform gyrus. This area in the brain plays an important role in coordinating the neural systems that affect facial memory and perception.

Prosopagnosia can be caused by stroke, injury to the brain, or some neurodegenerative diseases.

In some cases, people are born with face blindness as a congenital disorder. In these cases, there seems to be a genetic link, as it runs in families.

Face blindness isn’t always a standard symptom of autism, but it seems to be more common in those with autism than in the general population. It’s theorized that face blindness may be part of what sometimes impairs the social development of people with autism.

It’s important to note that face blindness is not caused by impaired vision, learning disabilities, or memory loss. It’s a specific problem with recognizing faces as opposed to a memory problem of failing to remember the person.

How is face blindness diagnosed?

If you’re having trouble recognizing faces, your primary care physician will refer you to a neurologist.

The neurologist may have you take an assessment that evaluates your ability to recognize facial features. The assessment may evaluate your ability to:

  • recognize faces you’ve never seen, or faces of your family
  • notice differences or similarities of facial features in sets of faces shown to you
  • detect emotional cues from a set of faces
  • assess information like age or gender from a set of faces

The Benton Facial Recognition Test (BFRT) and Warrington Recognition Memory of Faces (RMF) are two tests that physicians may use to evaluate potential face blindness. The scores you get on these tests, however, may not be entirely reliable in diagnosing facial blindness outright. One study found that irregular scores were not actually consistent with face blindness. A physician’s opinion is much more valuable.

There are also plenty of tests that claim to be able to diagnose face blindness online. Many of these are not accurate or valid, and you’re better off consulting your physician if you’re concerned.

How is face blindness treated?

There is no cure for face blindness. Treatment focuses on helping people with the condition find coping mechanisms to better identify individuals.

You could, for example, learn to focus on other visual or verbal clues to identify a person. This could include taking note of their curly blonde hair, their shorter-than-average-height, or their voice. You may also notice certain mannerisms, like how quickly they walk.

Many researchers are working on understanding specific causes of the condition and are looking for treatment.

Coping with face blindness

Face blindness can impact someone’s ability to establish personal and professional relationships. This can lead to social anxiety or depression. Learning how to identify people in ways that don’t rely on being able to recognize their face outright can help.

If you experience social anxiety or depression because of face blindness, consult a therapist. They can help you develop other techniques to:

  • better connect with people
  • build stronger interpersonal relationships
  • manage your social anxiety or depression symptoms

The National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke and Bournemouth University are researching prosopagnosia. They also have resources and information available for those with the condition.

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