Do I Know You?

A condition that causes an inability to recognize faces is socially isolating--and surprisingly common

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Howard is one of those children. Last year she learned the term prosopagnosia from a news article and thought, I have that. She contacted Bradley Duchaine of University College London, who jointly runs the Prosopagnosia Research Centers with Harvard's Nakayama. Last April, Duchaine gave Howard, her parents and six of her seven siblings a battery of recognition tests, including one that required identifying celebrity faces. Every member of the Howard family scored below average. "I showed one of them Elvis Presley," Duchaine says, "and she thought it was Brooke Shields."

Neuroscientists aren't sure exactly how the brain perceives faces but know that some ability to do so is present from birth and involves large and broadly distributed parts of the brain-- presumably reflecting the importance of face perception to survival. Babies prefer looking at their mother's visage over a stranger's and quickly learn to distinguish between male and female faces. Some part of that circuitry seems to be broken in prosopagnosics. Brain scans suggest impairment in the temporal or occipital lobes, both of which are heavily involved in face recognition.

For now, it's enough for face-blind people like Burman, who has spent a lifetime being misjudged as lazy and uncaring, to know that there are many others out there like her. Burman made her first contact with fellow prosopagnosics on an Internet mailing list in 2000. "It was only then that I really recognized my own situation in theirs," she says. "It was such a relief. I cried for days."

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