Cover Image

Illustration by Oscar Bray

Mistaking a Friend for a Stranger

What it’s like to have face blindness: being bad with names, forgetting appearances and mistaking family and friends for strangers.

Oct 5, 2019

Everyone has trouble with names. It’s one of the Holy Trinity of stock questions to ask new classmates – the other two being ‘where are you from?’ and ‘what’s your major?’ – and professors tend to say at the start of class: “I’ll do my best to learn all your names, but it may take a while.”
For most people, saying “I’m bad with names,” is another way of saying: “It’ll take me a couple of weeks to remember your name, but after that I’ll have no trouble.” When I tell people that I’m bad with names, I mean that if I haven’t seen you in a while, I will probably not recognize you. Even if we see each other regularly, I may not know your name. When I tell people that I’m bad with names, what I really mean is that I’m face blind.
Prosopagnosia – more commonly known as face blindness – is a cognitive disorder that affects one’s ability to process and recognize faces. It can be caused by brain damage, but in most cases it exists as a developmental disorder, affecting 2.5 percent of Americans. The condition came into the purview of public recognition thanks to Oliver Sacks’ book: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. The titular man has a particularly severe case, but even the more common symptoms can be debilitating, such as not being able to recognize family members or avoiding social situations for fear of embarrassment. There is no cure or treatment for prosopagnosia.
While I don’t have a formal diagnosis and don’t see it as a devastating disability, it still makes life more difficult. I recognize immediate family members just fine, but I have trouble with friends and more distant relatives. I’ve always been able to recognize myself in the mirror, but I usually can’t recognize people in real life just from looking at a photo. I’ve never mistaken anyone for a hat, but I did once mistake a complete stranger for a friend that I’d gone to an art gallery with the day before.
Face blindness is a somewhat misleading term because I can literally see people’s faces. To me, people’s appearances are like scratched records and my brain always skips over the face. It can be unnerving because it feels like I’m being sabotaged, like someone is turning the page for me before I’ve finished reading it.
Last year during Marhaba week, I didn’t know what prosopagnosia was, but I knew that I was going to meet a lot of new people that I would potentially get along with. My difficulty with names could jeopardize that, so I kept a memory list in my planner. If I met someone I knew I wanted to stay in touch with, I noted down their name and one distinctive feature about them, usually what they were wearing (dresses like a sixties pin-up girl) or what we talked about (inexplicably likes Ayn Rand). The only problem was that occasionally I would forget their name before I had the chance to write it down.
I did end up befriending some of those people, and as I write this I’m wondering if I would have forged as many friendships if I hadn’t thought to keep the list. In such a small community where everyone knows everyone to the point that you can reel off names in a group conversation and at least one person will know exactly who you mean, or you can show someone’s Instagram page and people will recognize them automatically, I feel like I’m stuck skirting along the periphery.
I think the way people with prosopagnosia navigate through the world says a lot about how we perceive people. If you can’t be identified with your appearance, what is left of you? Why can a face create such an impression on people, but your actions or other features sometimes can’t? It’s difficult for me to answer these questions, but what I do know is that forgetting a face or name doesn’t equate to forgetting a person. If you are a friend of mine, I still remember what I like about you, whether it’s encyclopaedic knowledge about a shared interest, having a unique and soothing voice or something you said that made me laugh.
If we’re standing in line together at D2 and it becomes obvious that I don’t recognize you when I should, please know that you do have value to me. If there is one positive thing I can say about this neurological quirk, it’s that it makes me more aware and appreciative of how others choose to face the world.
Oscar Bray is a staff writer and illustrator. Email him at
gazelle logo