Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Seeking His Face and Prosopagnosia (Part 3)

Jerry and I took my brother Tim out of his nursing home to see the movie Risen. One of Tim's areas of interest is "What happened to the body of Jesus?" and that movie addresses the issue.

When it was over I asked Tim what he thought of it. He said, "It was good but I had trouble following it because I couldn't tell any of the men apart. They all had beards." I had the same problem. All twelve disciples--and Jesus Himself--looked alike to me.

"It's called prosopagnosia," Tim said. "From the same root as 'agnostic.'" (He used to teach Greek and Latin.) "We don't know people's faces." To misquote Kipling, "I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all faces are alike to me." Rudyard Kipling, "The Cat that walked by Himself"

I knew I had trouble recognizing faces but I didn't know it had a name! Turns out Tim and I aren't the only ones with this embarrassing condition. Our brother Ted does, although he says he has the same problem recognizing "automobiles and other faceless appliances." As far as he's concerned, "There are only about twenty faces out there and then they begin to recycle. Forget movie celebrities.  Actors have only about three different faces, and actresses two -- Audrey Hepburn, and all the others. Anyway, faces don't become faces until they start moving; then they reveal themselves."

Prosopagnosia (lit. face ignorance) "is a disability that complicates everything from following a movie plot to picking a perp out of a lineup," according to the article "Do I Know You?" (Ted says, "Forget police lineups. I'd be like 'That's him, the policeman over there! He was fat and wearing the same suit!')

I can identify with that. At a bank or in a restaurant if the person who has been serving me leaves for a minute, I can't tell which one it was. Male or female, yes. Tall or short? Probably. Ethnicity? Possibly. That's about it. 

I recently spent an entire weekend with a new friend at the women's retreat--we shared a bed, for goodness' sake!--and at church the following week I saw a woman I thought might be her but I wasn't sure enough to go over and greet her by name. I'm like my mother. I don't remember faces (or names, either, many times) but I remember character qualities--friendly, aloof, fun. I remember people's hearts.

Prosopagnosia is socially isolating--and surprisingly common, says the article quoted above. Something like 1 in 50 people have some degree of it. "While mild prosopagnosics can train themselves to memorize a limited number of faces, others grapple with identifying family members and, in extreme cases, their own face. Gaylen Howard, 40, a homemaker in Boulder, Colo., says that when she's standing in front of a mirror in a crowded restroom, she makes a funny face so that, as she puts it, 'I can tell which one is me.'

"Most prosopagnosics learn to cope early on. They distinguish people based on cues like hairstyle, voice, gait or body shape. They avoid places where they could unexpectedly run into someone they know. They pretend to be lost in thought while walking down the street. They act friendly to everyone--or to no one. In short, they become expert at masking their dysfunction." 

So when it comes to seeking God's face, I am at a disadvantage. I love the portrait of Jesus by Akiane. I am sure He must look just like that picture. But when I am not actually looking at it I can only remember that the face is sun-browned, the eyes blue, piercing but kind. 

I wrote a poem recently about my difficulty in seeking the face of God. (To be continued.) 

Personal experience articles:


  1. Wow. I had never heard of that technical term but I think I had heard of face blindness. I heard the information saying it was rare. 1 in 50 is a lot. It is amazing how we can be so unaware of the struggles of others. Thank you for sharing. This is ANOTHER reason we all need to walk with compassion with one another. We are struggle in some way.

  2. ...another thing we have in common - I have a brother named Tim also.

  3. I usually recognize people I don't know well by a particular smile or greeting or gesture. If I'm trying to describe my husband to other people when he is out of sight, I remember he is tall, has white hair (I usually forget he has a moustache)--and just say, "He's the handsome one!" :o)