While hard to imagine for many people, the condition is real. Fox 5 went to the University of Southern California to talk to a leading researcher about the condition which is called prosopagnosia. Irving Biederman is a Harold W. Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience.
“Most cases are congenital, people are born that way,” said Biederman. “In a few cases, it’s the result of a brain lesion because of a stroke, or injury, or accident.”
aid most people who are congenitally prosopagnosic don’t know it.
“We often are able to identify the people around us on the basis of context on their voice, what they’re doing, their clothes, what they’re wearing, and their hair color and so on,” said Biederman.
The condition is rarely diagnosed, but a recent Harvard study suggests 1 in 50 suffer from it.
“When it comes to differentiating (faces), it’s like a sea of water,” said Michael J. Herman who suffered a traumatic brain injury after falling 12 feet at the age of five.
When his vision finally returned there were a number of issues including the inability to remember faces.
“There have been a lot of embarrassing or awkward moments,” he said. “My best friends, who I would see every day at school, I’d walk right past.”
When Herman told a Harvard researcher he couldn’t recognize faces and everybody looked the same, he was finally diagnosed.
“He said, ‘You probably have something called prosopagnosia,’” said Herman.
Fox 5 went through a face recognition test — the exact one he’s taken twice before — with Herman. He looked at pictures of celebrities. He couldn’t recognize President Barack Obama, Conan O’Brien or Anne Hathaway. He was able to correctly identify former President Bill Clinton by the pin on his lapel, and Oprah Winfrey because of her hair and smile.
There is a similar condition involving voice recognition called phonagnosia.
“A student here at USC had approached us that she could not recognize a speaker by the voice alone,” said Sarah Herald, a native San Diegan studying at USC.
Herald will present her findings on that now-out-of-state student at a neuroscience convention in San Diego in November.
“This is probably the second reported case of congenital phonagnosia, so it’s a very interesting, unique case,” said Herald. “It could lead to other understandings in the human brain.”
Michael Herman said not being able to remember faces is a challenge, but it’s one he’s learned to live with for many years.
“Whatever your lot in life is, it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Life can always be better. Life is better and life is beautiful.”