Face Blind!

Chapter 7

How Non-Face Recognition Methods Work in Practice


How We Tell People Apart

As we discussed in the previous chapter, every person with face blindness comes up with his personal formula for remembering people. Voice, essences, clothes, hair, and beards are the most commonly reported. Some people may develop a scheme where they have one or more of these be their primary way of identifying people - their "key traits" - with the others applied as needed to assist. Other people never develop a precise system, but use all of the things available with a scheme that could characterized as "vague" at best. Whichever be the case, we all undoubtedly mix the different ways of telling people apart to some degree. If someone's hair, or voice, or clothes are particularly unique, for example, we are likely to remember that.

For me, and for some face blind people I've met (but not for others), some ways of remembering people work much better than others. (These are the "key traits" discussed in the last chapter.) In my case, I recall those ways of categorizing people being established in childhood, and despite the desirability of changing or enhancing them over time, I've had little luck doing so since. I believe there was a window of opportunity back in childhood, like there is at that age to learn languages. At that age you learn a scheme to categorize people, and after then it is pretty much set.

The mind is quite malleable, especially when you are young, to create alternatives when a roadblock is encountered. However, each face blind person navigates that course alone and finds his own way, when developing ways to remember people. We each see parallels in how other face blind folks deal with this problem, yet often we can be quite different from each other in our methods. Since those differences were set in childhood, we as adults can't necessarily change to a method that works for someone else. Put another way, because another face blind person deals with telling people apart in a certain way, this doesn't mean I can. It's the "old dog, new trick" problem.

Combining Methods

No matter what our primary method to tell people apart might be, often we will find a combination of methods works better than merely having any one of them alone. For example, I can seldom identify someone by his voice alone, but I may encounter someone whom I can't identify visually, and upon the person's speaking, I will find I can combine the visual image and the voice to get an identification. Educators of the deaf have discovered a similar phenomenon among their students, and they even have coined a name for it, "total communication" - a person who can neither sign, nor read lips, nor hear enough of human speech to get information, may be able to do far better than with any one of these methods when he combines all of them and uses them simultaneously.

How Well Our "Methods To Tell People Apart" Work

None of our ways of telling people apart that stand in for the facial recognition system we lack, compare in efficiency or accuracy to that system. In three ways our systems do not measure up:


The facial recognition system is designed to recognize a person in less than one second. Since most people recognize people that quickly, that is the time frame that, in social settings, society allows for.

Most of the stand-in systems that face blind people use require several seconds to identify someone. This puts a face-blind person very much out of sync in many social situations. Someone who requires, say, eight seconds will, in that interval, have long passed a friend on the street without recognizing him. If you are face blind, in social settings, or even when watching TV, people will have come and gone long before you can identify them. So you never do. By the time eight seconds have passed, people in your presence who don't know of your face blindness will be offended at your failure to recognize them. And long before you even get your eight seconds, you know you will be criticized for "staring," particularly if you try to identify someone by looking at them near the face. So you scrutinize them elsewhere, or you just forget trying to identify them altogether.


The facial recognition system is designed to identify a known person out of thousands, if not millions. It will spot a friend on a busy street in a distant city.

The stand-in systems of the face blind do not have a one-in-a-million acuity. The methods they use may be able to sort out a dozen people, or maybe a few dozen at most. To use those methods, they must divide known people into small groups, and then pick which person they are seeing in the group before them. A face blind person may recognize all of his neighbors on his block, for example, because he only expects to find about a dozen people there, and he can figure out which of those dozen someone is. The face blind guy may be able to sort out his twenty-five co-workers in the office. But if he encounters a neighbor or a co-worker on a busy street downtown, he will probably not recognize that person, because he has appeared in a place where he was not expected.


Face blind people seem to deal with the diminished accuracy of their systems in two different ways. Some appear to be conservative, never feeling they have identified someone unless they are sure who they are. Other face blind people are much more liberal with their identifications, often mistaking strangers for people they know. The first group makes far fewer mistakes, but they probably identify less people as well. (Face blind people call the first [conservative] group "underrecognizers" and the second [liberal] group "overrecognizers".)

Whichever style befalls a face blind person does not seem to be a choice. I am a conservative in this vein, and I wouldn't know how to begin to liberalize my skills. I would have no idea which perceived strangers should be subjected to my liberalization efforts! They all seem equally (and totally) unknown to me. And a liberal in the identification game would say he would not know which of his perceived acquaintances should be excluded.

Things That Work Best

There are some things that seem to work best for face blind people, across the board, for those who use the item in question as part of their recognition system:

The Face Blind Hit List

Folks, we aren't speaking of a "hit list" in the hands of a discjockey here. We're thinking of one in the hands of a gangster....


We hate it when waitresses all dress alike, because we never know which one is ours. Cops to us all look the same. One mother of a face blind youngster told me her kid had a nervous breakdown when his school instituted uniforms, because it made a very stressful situation far worse.

The worst situation my face blindness ever put me in was when I entered the Navy. I found myself surrounded by hundreds of people who all looked exactly alike. They all wore the same clothes and none of them had any hair. I could not tell any of them apart. It was like a bizarre science fiction movie that I could not turn off. It ran from sunup to late night, and I could not escape it. This was so freaky that I completely lost it after five days. They said I stared at a single spot on the floor for two hours straight, when someone finally summoned the psych folks. In subsequent interviews they did not figure out the face blindness, but they decided they definitely didn't want me in the Navy.

I once had a job that involved going to buildings and getting their engineers to show me around. Inevitably they would all wear identical clothes and never have beards or long hair. My "tour guide" would take me to a distant part of the building and then tell me to come get him if I needed him again. When I'd go down to the office, there would be half a dozen guys there, all who looked just like the guy I was looking for. I couldn't just ask for the guy by name because if he was there he would get very upset that I had forgotten him completely in thirty minutes' time.

Uniforms in a school setting are the greatest travesty. Kids need to be able to socialize to develop normally, and a face blind kid is already fighting a fierce uphill battle. Uniforms can cut one off from all hope of socializing, and sadly, give up altogether.

Business suits

No face blind person I know, who primarily uses clothing to tell people apart, can stand business suits. They are the face blind guy's version of putting a bag over your face.

Business suits to me all look alike, and they hide the shape of the person very much. Most people who wear them also remove their beards and most of their hair. A face blind guy in a job where most people wear business suits can forever find himself going into conferences having no idea who all the people are.

Dress Codes

Any regulation, written or implied, that cajoles others to look alike presents a big problem for us. Typical dress codes not only limit the styles of clothing worn, but they inevitably encourage a style that is among the hardest for us to tell apart.

My difficulty with dress codes is one of my longest running that I can remember, of those associated with face blindness. In seventh grade in physical education, they made us all wear identical shorts and T-shirts. I disliked doing it then, but at that time did not know why. Then in high school there was talk of creating a school uniform. Of all the kids in the school, I alone wrote a letter opposing it to the school newspaper. This letter later proved to be a very valuable piece of information. Soon after I learned of my face blindness, I got into a discussion with the mother of a face blind kid about uniforms, and I remembered the letter was in the basement. When I dug it out, I read that the reason I was opposed to uniforms was that I did not think it was desirable that all the school's students look like "carbon copies" of each other. How this thirty-three year old letter was valuable was that it confirmed that I have been face blind forever.

Fortunately, my school did not impose the uniforms. They would have caused me a far greater problem than at that time I could have imagined.

Hair Codes

Hair codes have all the difficulties of codes on clothing, plus four more, and they are big ones:

In Conclusion

In this chapter we have concluded our discussion about how the face blind recognize people by covering generalities that apply to most of us. Because we all grew up isolated from one another, though, and because we have different skills, the ways we each implement our facial recognition system can vary quite a bit. Although we see lots of similarities, there are as many recognition schemes out there as there are face blind people. To give you an idea of how these schemes work, we will provide two actual examples - How I recognize people and how another face blind man, Pertti, does. In previous chapters we have discussed the following tasks, so look for how they are performed in the descriptions that Pertti and I will provide:

We begin with how I tell people apart.

"Face Blind!" - Table of Contents

Chapter 1Introduction
Chapter 2Discovering Face Blindness
Chapter 3Physical Causes of Face Blindness
Chapter 4The Importance of Recognizing Others
Chapter 5How Most People Recognize Others
Chapter 6Ways To Recognize Others Without Using the Face - BACK
Chapter 7How Non-Face Recognition Methods Work in Practice - YOU ARE HERE
Chapter 8A...Bill: How I Tell People Apart - NEXT
Chapter 8B...Pertti: Recognition System - The Essence Model
Chapter 9Effect of Face Blindness on Emotions
Chapter 10Effect of Face Blindness on Sexuality
Chapter 11Effect of Face Blindness on Your Social Groups
Chapter 12Understanding Why People Choose To Look Alike
Chapter 13Ways To Improve Our Lives


Appendix AHow To Find Medical Articles on Face Blindness
Appendix BGetting Diagnosed (Tested) for Face Blindness
Appendix CLinks to Other Face Blind People
Appendix DAuthor's Information Page

This document is copyrighted. For information, or to contact the author, go to Appendix D, the Author's Information Page.

Text of this chapter last revised January 1, 2002.