Prosopagnosia, or Face Blindness: Symptoms and Causes

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 24, 2022
4 min read

Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, happens when you can’t identify a person’s face. Most people with prosopagnosia are born with it. They’ll continue to have the condition throughout most or all their lives. It can greatly affect your daily schedule. In severe cases, you may not be able to quickly recognize your family members, close friends, or partner if you have this disorder.

The disorder doesn’t have to do with your actual vision. While you may see a person’s face clearly, prosopagnosia may make it hard for you to understand who they are at first glance. For example, people with prosopagnosia may see a good friend while at the store. The friend may seem to know you, but you might not be able to identify who they are right away.

You can get prosopagnosia from a head injury. On the other hand, you may have been born with the disorder.

There are two forms of it:

Acquired prosopagnosia. This type happens after damage to your brain. It often involves certain areas that control your brain’s perception and memory (your occipital lobes and temporal lobes).

This form of prosopagnosia is rare. Most people will notice they have this type of disorder because they can no longer identify people the way they once did. But if you got this when you were a child, you may not be able to tell that you have it.

After you go through an event that affects your brain, like a stroke, you may also get prosopagnosia. This suggests that facial blindness doesn’t start in just one area of your brain. Instead, it could happen because of various brain complications.

Developmental prosopagnosia. In other situations, you could have the condition without any brain damage. Some data shows that there could be a genetic factor that causes developmental prosopagnosia. Many people with this type of disorder have at least one close family member with it as well.

Studies suggest that 1 in 50 people have this form. If you were born with the condition, you may not even realize that you have it.

Experts used to think that most people got the condition after an injury. But data has found that more people have developmental instead of acquired prosopagnosia. This means that most of the time, people are born with it and don’t get it from an injury as often.

If you have autism or other developmental disorders like Williams’ syndrome or Turner’s syndrome, you’re more likely to have prosopagnosia as well. There are many theories to explain this link. Experts think that it could have to do with a lack of social interest in faces and other issues related to your brain’s processing skills.

But just because you have one of these conditions doesn’t mean you’ll have the other.

Talk to your doctor if you think you have this disorder. They may refer you to a neuropsychologist to take a deeper look at your symptoms. They’ll have you complete a test that looks at how well you can:

  • Identify faces or famous people’s faces.
  • Memorize and recognize faces later (after seeing them before).
  • Find similarities and differences between faces placed next to each other.
  • Judge someone’s gender, age, or mood based on a set of faces.

It may be hard to tell if you have the disorder. The best way to find out is to ask your doctor to test you for the condition.

So far, there isn’t one specific form of treatment for prosopagnosia. There’s also no known cure for the disorder. But there are training programs to help you overcome the symptoms.

When your doctor suggests ways to help with your prosopagnosia, they should consider the age when you developed the condition (if you have an acquired version), the type of prosopagnosia you have, and how severe it is.

Some people rely on tools to help with facial recognition. For example, you may try to remember someone’s voice, clothing, or the way they move instead of their facial features. But these tactics don’t always work. You might choose to:

  • Rely on a significant other to give you cues to remember certain people.
  • Develop a link between a person’s qualities through other objects or locations.
  • Focus on specific facial features that may help someone stand out in your brain.
  • Identify people through conversation and questions.
  • Use visual aids like pictures or name tags to memorize someone’s identity.

It can be a challenge to live with this disorder. You may fear that you come off as rude or distracted around others. This could cause you to want to be alone, avoid relationships, or miss out on career opportunities. But many people can learn ways to deal with prosopagnosia’s symptoms.

It’s a good idea to be upfront and honest with people about the disorder. That way, you won’t worry about others misunderstanding you.