Prosopagnosia – Forgetting faces and saving face!


As we age, many of us become concerned with a seemingly growing inability to remember people whom we may have occasionally encountered. I certainly do!

Recently, as I was exiting a local ATM at the Cascades Shopping Centre in Pietermaritzburg, I encountered a very pleasant young lady, who, with an affable smile, greeted me saying… “Hullo Henry! How are you? “ She obviously knew exactly who I was. I responded in kind but omitted her name, as whilst I recognised her face, I had no idea who she really was. She entered the ATM, and instead of walking away disappointed at my forgettery (as I would normally have done!), this time I stood there perplexed! I thought to myself – you are now at an age where it doesn’t really matter what people think of you! What is important is that you try to simplify the perplexities of life. And so I stood outside the ATM waiting for her.

When she exited I said to her… “This is very brave of me… and a little insensitive, but who the hell are you?” Giving me a slightly puzzled smile she answered… “Don’t you remember? We met at the Witness newspaper last week. I am Margaret von Klemperer. I reviewed your latest book!

Oh yes! Then it came to me. She was the book reviewer at the local newspaper in Pietermaritzburg and we had indeed met the previous week! What to do? This didn’t bode well for my future reviews! Fortunately, in addition to increasing intolerance, impatience and sporadic grumpiness, one of the evolutionary skills which have kept pace with my mounting years, was the ability to save face. I immediately responded… “Yes of course! I must have been mesmerized by you!” And so we parted with our casual friendship intact – she humorously flattered, and I relieved that my future career as an author remained intact!

The ability to save face is a vital means of recovering from embarrassing faux pas. I for example regularly, when handed an article such as a cell phone, or spectacles, which I have left on a desk or in an office that I have been visiting, respond by saying… “Well done! You have passed the test. You have discovered my deliberate mistake!” (It would, of course, be counterproductive, were one to use this get-out-o-jail-card too often – especially on the same person!).

With this in mind, I was very interested to read an article in a recent AARP Newsletter; which made me wonder if I was suffering from prosopagnosia (Or face blindness). The word derives from the Greek words “prosopon” (face) and “agnosia” (not knowing”). The syndrome – a neurological condition, in which that section of the brain which recognises faces fail to develop, apparently affects one in 50 people. In its severest form it may prevent the recognition of friends or family members – and in extreme cases even one’s own reflection. There is no actual treatment for the condition but training programmes are being developed to assist in facial memory retention.


Encouraging lazy memory retention?

While the source article goes on to explain that prosopagnosia can be attributable to either a genetic link or acquired through an injury, I believe that there are other possibly more mundane contributors – some being as follows: In my case, I have perhaps encouraged a lazy memory. Even as far back as my school days, I failed to appreciate the need to memorise facts that were readily accessible in books; and so seldom tried to memorise things.


Overloaded memory banks?

Another reason why some of us tend to forget faces is perhaps due to us having overloaded our memory banks. I have for example lived in over 30 different houses, in a variety of countries, and have had a similar number of jobs, it goes without saying that I have met and have known an extremely large number of people… should I really be surprised if I fail to remember some – after all I have yet to discover how to ‘defrag’ my brain, or how to transfer surplus info to the ‘recycle bin?’


Selective memory banks?

And then there is a far more disturbing aspect of our inability to remember faces. I recently viewed a TV programme on racism. The topic was on research carried out at a Melbourne University in Australia. In the experiment, researchers sought to investigate racism. A group of volunteers from different cultural groups were tested in respect of their ability to recognise faces. Invariably they coped reasonably well with the faces of the “in-group” (people of their own race) but failed miserably to recall faces of other race groups i.e. those from “out groups.” And I couldn’t help but recall how often I have heard people remark … “But they all look the same?” And this applies as much to the ability of whites to recognise black faces, as it does the reverse? Perhaps we should just all try a little harder?

SAARP – South African Association of Retired Persons