Back in 2006 I lost my facial recognition skills. Suddenly most people were unrecognizable and the ones I recognized often looked very different. Eventually it mostly came back but there are people I used to see everyday that I still keep in contact with and I have no idea what they look like. Others I see pictures of and their pictures look different than I remember them. Typically everything looks the same but the face is not the face I thought they had. Voices are instantly recognizable though. If I hear the voice the face follows.
When it was really bad I used all kinds of things to recognize people. Hats were handy. As long as they wore the same hat. Beards the same. Height was great. Really tall guys were instantly recognizable. Really little people too. Height doesn’t change. But some jerk went on a diet, lost his double chin and left me clueless. A lady I knew got a breast job and I didn’t recognize her.
The weirdest thing about suddenly losing your facial recognition is that you don’t see the right things when you look at someone. You’re missing all the expressions and signals we use when talking to each other. You’re talking to someone and you see all these details of their skin, tiny little flaws, wrinkles, the shape of their face, it’s like looking at a painting. People look older. You’ll hear their voice behind you, turn around and they’re ten years older than they looked before. It’s as if the first impression their face made on you a decade before is locked into your facial recognition memory. Weirder still is that you think about this as they’re talking to you. It could be very disorienting, but you just deal with it or hide in your room.
It’s mostly repaired itself now. Though if we’ve only met a couple times there’s a good chance I won’t recognize you. I’ve gotten really good at faking my way through it. In a crowded situation it can get pretty dicey. I can tell if we’ve talked before and just hope someone says your name. But still there are inevitably moments when someone starts talking to me and I inadvertently diss them because I have no idea we’ve met before.
The morning I woke up with no facial recognition—it was an epilepsy thing, seizure activity burning its way through my temporal lobe—there was an all hands meeting at work. Hundreds of people milling around and nearly all of them as featureless as mannequins. It was pretty damn funny. Well, maybe not at the time.
It’s always interesting, epilepsy.