People who have prosopagnosia deal with an illness that renders them blind to peoples’ faces. Someone with the disease, even after studying a person’s face for half an hour would be unable to tell them apart from someone with the same body type but very obviously a different facial structure. Since those with prosopagnosia find it so difficult to identify facial features, they will often attach a person’s identity to what they are wearing or a piece of jewelry. And when this jewelry changes owners, that person’s identity follows it.
The disease currently has 2.5% of the population in its grips, meaning one out of every forty people cannot distinguish one person’s face from another’s. But because the disease works largely with people living in societies where everyone attempts to look unique, it can go for years without being noticed. Often those with the disease can recognize close relatives and people whose faces they have seen often for years, but strangers are more or less a blur.
But there is an interesting subconscious context to the disease as well based on research conducted at the University of Florida that suggests that the disease may affect the conscious mind while leaving unconscious impulses unaffected. The experiment took prosopagnosiacs and showed them several photographic images including several people they knew personally and in fact had deep meaningful relationships with. While the tests predictably showed that the test subjects were unable to recognize facial structures in several individuals, both familiar and unfamiliar, sensors attached to the skin showed flushing that goes along with an emotional reaction when faces of recognized loved ones appeared. As a result, researchers concluded that the prosopagnosiac may subconsciously recognize people close to them even if they do not register that they do. Interestingly, they also were given the option of saying whether or not someone “felt” or looked familiar, but this showed little more accuracy than the rest of the tests. People who looked familiar were just as likely strangers as loved ones to the test subjects.
Imagine a world where two people wearing the exact same thing were completely unrecognizable to you. This is the strange world many prosopagnosiacs live with every day. And yet the disease also allows us a rare glimpse into the human mind. It tells us things about the capabilities of each individual’s brain and the complex interlaced network of neurons that leads to recognition. It also, however, tells us that these avenues can be damaged in such a way that suggests it stems from one place, though the central network it is related to is still a matter of research and contention.
Of course Prosopagnosia should not be confused with Pareidolia, which is an almost universal condition wherein users see faces in objects, though the two do both deal with the brain’s facial recognition system. It’s as simple as putting two dots and a line in a circle in order to not only illustrate a face, but even to convey that face’s emotions. This condition is what led to the development of emoticons.