Functional Prosopagnosia

Prosopagnosia (Greek: “prosopon” = “face”, “agnosia” = “not knowing”), also called face blindness, is a cognitive disorder of face perception where the ability to recognize faces is impaired, while other aspects of visual processing (e.g., object discrimination) and intellectual functioning (e.g., decision making) remain intact.

I went to see a very ill patient up on the floors just now, and while I was walking back to my office, I ran into two people I really, really should know. One is a patient of mine, someone who has had several office visits and phone conversations with me that were quite intense, as she was very sick. In addition, we’ve had numerous other interactions over the years.  As we were talking, I could remember her medical issues, her lab results, even what her last chest xray looked like; but not her name.

We chatted, me growing more embarrassed every second as  it was painfully obvious that I was searching and searching my mind for this woman’s name. I tried to mention details from her case in conversation, so she would realize that I KNEW her. Just not her freaking name.

Two steps on, I almost ran head-on into the family member of another patient, someone I knew very well from that patient’s prolonged complicated medical admission. Which was just a few weeks ago. I know the case details, and the discharge issues she’s had, and the medications she’s on, but, I cannot remember either of their names. We chatted briefly, with me asking a vague, “So, how is…. she?” referring to the patient whose name I cannot recall.

So, so lame.

This is a longtime recurring issue in my life. I have been at family events with relatives I have grown up with, and I can’t recall their names. Former classmates, colleagues… hell, I’ve blanked on current colleagues’ names.

Worse, much worse, I will search the diorganized rolodex of my mind for the name, and then think I have found it, and I will use the name… the wrong name. I have done this innumerable times, most recently at a party full of people who turned and stared at me when I called “Jane! So glad you’re here!” and the woman was Darcy.

I know all the recommendations for remembering names. “Use their name often in conversation.” “Use their name in a sentence.” And, I feel like I do that. But still, it slips away, like a worn label on clothing… there but not there, so faded as to be beyond recognition.

If I’m in the grocery store and I run into a patient (happens), I can blame being “out of context.” Today in particular, I can blame the fact that my mind and emotional energy are very much with the sick patient in the ICU. I can also blame fatigue, hunger, and general distraction… to an extent.

Regardless of excuses, it feels so lame and awful to KNOW who someone is, and yet not be able to grasp who, really, they are. My issue is obviously not classic prosopagnosia, I offer that as a sort of humorous analogy. But it is an issue…

Does this happen to anyone else?

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Functional Prosopagnosia

  1. All the time, although I have gotten better very recently with teaching. It is now a very important part of my job to learn students’ names quickly. A new group of Freshmen rotate into my room for one week every two weeks (40 new names a month! Plus the regular upper classman). Before, I would rely on my hubby for names of acquaintances from college or my twin brother for family/childhood classmates’ names. That would point me in the right direction, “Remeber, the one who played the guitar?”
    My take, I tend to be very focused – the opposite of ADD & I miss everyday things often. My energies are so drawn by the task/ issue @ hand I think I may overlook names, street names, Exit #s, etc. I think that is why I love writing now b/c I am reprocessing things & seeing things I may have missed initially….
    You are not alone- your profession demands that you focus on disease, medication regimens, & the like…I am not surprised. I would rather my MD know my entire medical history than immediately be able to recall my name.

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  2. Meg S

    Oliver Sacks, on of the most published neurologists, has prosopagnosia. He wrote a great article about it in The New Yorker a few years ago.

    I’ve defiantly done this a few times….
    I inevitably fumble for the name like an idiot.

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  3. Jay

    Yup. Regularly. In exactly that way – I can remember all the medical details down to lab results and med doses, but not the name. I feel awful when it happens – as if I don’t see patients as people but rather data. Ugh.

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  4. I have this problem, and decided that not knowing the name is not important. I can just smile and talk and not get lost in not knowing the name – they think I know their name therefore I do. If there is someone else with me I need to introduce them to I turn to my friend – “I would love you to meet my friend Alyssa” and they inevitably introduce themselves, so the name is revealed. And then quickly forgotten. We need to worry about more important things in life than remembering every patient’s/lab techs/ etc. name. If I need to know their name during the conversation I slip it in – “Tell me your name again so I can write that down I’m having one of those days you know” and of course they know and like to rescue me since I am usually so in charge and together.

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  5. I think more people feel this way than don’t. In your profession, you see lots of people only occasionally, which is the hardest challenge. I know that from the receiving end, I am sympathetic, so I err on the side of re-introducing myself and letting people say, “yes Lara, I remember you!” even if they honestly might not have remembered my name. I do this all the time at conferences. I wish more people would do it back, to help me out! I am so much more flattered by someone remembering my last talk or my book than my name, so it doesn’t bother me. I remember seeing my college choral director after a couple years, and he didn’t remember my name at all, but he flipped through his mental rolodex with “oh, hi, yes — mezzo, biiig voice, I remember!” I was pleased that he remembered me distinctly through the medium we shared. It’s not necessarily our names, per se, that most make us individuals and signal shared past experience and past meaningful contact.

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  6. I agree with Lara! Names not important, context in remembrance is. Now I just wish that I could match faces either with names OR patient charts. I’m lost in the great wide world without a patient chart. I only remember the names of a handful of frequently-seen patients. My least favorite was when I was seeing a kid and asked about family history and the mother said “you remember, you saw me last week.” I did not recognize the mother, let alone remember her name or her medical history. This has happened more than once. I just apologize and let the patients know that I am bad with faces and names, and hope they understand and appreciate me for my strengths rather than my weaknesses

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  7. Ana

    I think I have it worse—I can’t remember faces. So I’ll remember “Tom” and every detail about Tom, but when I see Tom it doesn’t register who it is. I’ve introduced myself to the same person multiple times (not in the same day, but as soon as a week later). If someone changes something about them, I’m completely lost. A guy I knew (not well, but still) shaved his head, and when I saw him I had to ask his name.
    I have trouble recognizing actors in movies or TV, too. Especially if they change their appearance or have a new accent.
    Its no wonder I’ve never spotted a celebrity anywhere. I’m also terrible when friends or my husband want to do the “who does he remind you of?” game.

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  8. mamadoc

    Oh, my yes. And after 30 years of practice in the same town it can be pretty awkward. One of the senior guys on our staff told me many years ago: “I just gave up and told my wife: ‘Honey, if we’re out somewhere and somebody comes up and I don’t introduce you it’s because I can’t remember who the &*%$ they are!”

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