In his best-selling book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for His Hat, Oliver Sachs recounts many of the more bizarre cases of his long career as a clinical neurologist. And there is none more entertaining than the eponymous story of the man who failed to not only recognise his own wife as she sat in the room, but mistook her body for a hatstand and her head for, well, his hat!
This particular case was a remarkable anomaly but the more common condition, prosopagnosia, or face blindness, affects many people to widely varying degrees. Indeed, Sachs himself suffers from the condition to the extent that, when interviewed recently on CNN, he failed to recognise images of either Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley. He later confessed that on more than one occasion he had not recognised his own face as he came up to a mirror, thinking perhaps it was someone else in the room.
And he’s not the only one. Brad Pitt believes he has the same condition. In an interview in Esquire magazine, he told interviewer Tom Juno that shortly after meeting someone, their face disappears from his memory, and if he meets them again, it’s like it’s the first time. He describes trying to fake that he remembers people, or asking them to remind him where he knew them from, but that seemed to add insult to injury. As he says, “you get this thing, like, ‘You’re being egotistical. You’re being conceited.’”. Indeed. And I can relate to that…
My own condition is, in comparison, very mild but if it’s less debilitating, it’s no less embarrassing. I have no trouble recognising actors or celebrities (although I may struggle with the names) but people I’ve met recently, even the day or week before, may be wiped from my memory entirely. Like Pitt and Sachs, I have developed various strategies for coping but they often make matters worse.
But the real problem is I’m something of an extrovert. I’m very social and I enjoy meeting people and I even take some pride in the art of good conversation. Given this, it is understandably offensive if I’ve spent a long time talking to someone and then fail to recognise them a day or two later. If the time between meetings becomes weeks or months, it tends to be much worse.
Just recently, I was at a party at the house of some good friends. This couple are popular and have lots of other friends and neighbours, many of whom I’ve met several times over the two years or so we’ve known each other. As so often happens, I meet these ‘friends of friends’ and introduce myself immediately only to see the look on their face of mild contempt. Sometimes I quickly follow that with “I’m sorry, of course we’ve met before but I’ve forgotten your name”.
When delivered with dignity, that line will carry me so far but it may be the second or third time that I’ve had that same encounter with someone and then it becomes just plain rude. No one likes to be forgotten. It implies that they, or the conversation you had with them, was clearly nothing to you and, as Brad Pitt says, it comes across as arrogance, or worse, indifference. In my case, it will often come to me later and then I realise with a sinking feel that I really do know that person quite well and to have forgotten them is just pain weird.
Similarly, In the open plan office where I work there are many people who I’ve become friendly with over the year or more I’ve been working there. I have no trouble in recognising them all now but I still mix up their names in quite strange ways. Often, although not always, they are people more reserved than I am and somehow that seems more insulting, as if I have no time for those people and can’t even be bothered remembering their name. For a long time I kept a floor plan on my computer and kept looking back at it to ensure I memorised everyone’s names but even that system fails me when I’m caught off-guard or at an event out of context.
Of course there are so many conditions infinitely harder to bear than this but its subtlety is somehow the more damning. If I was clearly a loon, one could make allowances, but in other ways I appear to be (more or less) normal, and worse, outgoing and friendly. I’m convinced there are are a lot of others with the same problem but I’m guessing many of them hold back rather than re-introducing themselves for the fifth time!
So, if you happen to be a friend or colleague of mine reading this, and I forget you or your name or that we’ve even met, please try not be offended. It’s really not you…