Face Blind

Hello everyone else who struggles with face blindness.  It’s not uncommon, but it is still embarassing.  I don’t have a particularly severe or remarkable form, but I am really crap at faces.

On a short-term basis, if I meet someone at say, 4 p.m., and at 8 p.m. go looking for them in a crowded room, I’ll absolutely recognise them second I see them.  But if the search is troublesome, I won’t be able to physically describe them to a stranger.  The most I can ever manage is a vague sort of – “short” (most people are short to me), “grey hair, um… I’ll know her when I see her.”  The details that bring a face to life, proportion and relative dimensions, are just a great big splat of blurred uncertainty in my brain.

With that comes appalling name retention.  It’s particularly bad if I’m meeting three or four people at once, as usually the names come so fast that I won’t have a chance to crudely try and construct some sort of hook around the information I’m receiving.  “Her name is Monica… she signs her monika with a monitor…”  Putting in a ditty, or linking someone to a colour (the synaesthesia sometimes kicks in here), or to a ridiculous picture – “Bob has a face like an anvil, bang bang bob boom goes the hammer….” or repeating a name ten times in the hope that no one will muddle me by saying another while I’m still working on the first – can sometimes get me through.  But these things are usually desperate scurrying for something – anything – to salvage what I already know in my heart is going to be an awkward afternoon of “um, yes, so um… this is… uh….”

At work I deal with a lot of incoming techies and engineers, and if I have time I’ll try to mentally write their names above their heads in my mind’s eye, so whenever they come back to talk to me, I can read who they are in a celestial mental halo.  But again, that is dependent on having time to construct the picture, creating the mental feeling of almost physically writing it out one letter at a time, and my frequent failure to do this is often made more embarrassing by the fact that in the technical sides, there are very, very few women, and a lot of men.  Women lighting designers have novelty value.  Whereas… awkwardly… the series of very talented, beer drinking white blokes with beards who come to use the sound desk… sorta begin to blur… sorry….

Long-term, people who I know and have extensive shared experience with, I’m absolutely fine with, though I still struggle to describe or draw their faces.  Even after knowing my friends for ten or more years, when I try to conjure up a mental image it’s a real effort, and always has to placed within a context – an action, a story.  Even my partner’s face is a blur until I put it in a very specific mental context, continually wrangling with expression to find a thing that feels real.  And if they have a radical haircut, or start wearing unusual clothes – I’ll be very quickly flummoxed.  And once I get used to the change, I’ll be basically unable to remember what went before as anything other than a cartoonish reconstruction.

Subtle changes I’m basically oblivious to.  My former flatmate once applied some sort of product to her face that made her cheaks, forehead and eyes all swell up and turn bright red; and I simply couldn’t see the difference until she shook me by the shoulders and shouted about it.

Yet if you ask what colour my friends are – not in terms of ethnicity, but how I relate to them – I’m your girl.  I can describe the colour, the weight, the texture, the temperature of how I feel about my friends and what shade of red their souls are in fine and complex detail, not to mention whole life stories.  I just can’t… describe their faces.

(Fun, curious fact: when I recklessly commit yoga, which is a practice I’m diabolically bad at, something breaks in my synaesthesia.  Usually all my physical experiences and thoughts have a colour about them, but there’s something about how much downward facing dog sucks that breaks a connection in my brain.  Anyway, random digression…)

By far and away, the most embarrassing manifestation is with people who I meet, very rarely, over many years.  Lovely publishers or event organisers, kind and generous humans who I can easily spend several hours chatting to in January, and then half-recognise with a start of “oh God, who is that, I feel warmth towards them but have no idea why!” in September, and then re-introduce myself to as if we had never met before in February of next year.  Again, loads of people have this, and it’s just awkward.  All my techniques for getting through that short-term period fail.  The celestial halo doesn’t come back with a name; the little ditties have long since vanished.  Instead I do that thing that we’ve all done, of pretending I remember who everyone is and then waiting for someone to ask their name, at which point – bullseye!  A flood of recollection will come back, frequently coupled with the realisation that whoever I’m talking with has already heard this story three times or explained their relationship to their cats the last time we met, and is wondering why the hell we’re talking about this again.

It’s not that I want to be rubbish.  I’m trying really hard to curate a set of tools which will hopefully make me less lame.  I go out of my way to google anyone I’m going to be on panels with first, so that I can connect their names, faces and stories together and actually have something interesting to talk about.  I will zoom in on details that I can hang a hook off, and I’m really, really trying hard to concentrate and turn my feeble facial abilities into a more useful story.

It’s just hard for the way my brain is wired, and I really suck at it.  And I genuinely apologise if I’ve met you more than once, and each time I meet you I give you that sorta “Uh… yeah… hi…” look.  The second I hear your name, I will genuinely remember everything that went before, and be excited and pleased to see you again.  It’s just faces, faces!  Faces my nemesis….

On the plus side: loads of people suck at this too.  They’re just blagging better.


  1. Try speaking the name out loud, so you can hear yourself, while looking at the face. This engages auditory and visual memory together. Might work. Good luck.

  2. At last, someone who admits to the same problem! I’ve suffered from this all my life (so far), so much so that someone once accused me of being hopelessly rude because I never used their name – I simply couldn’t remember it. People come up to me and start conversations and I have absolutely no idea who the hell they are, but they obviously know me. It makes for awkward and hazardous chats. At work, I used to dread being asked to take some paperwork to colleagues because I couldn’t put the face to the name I was being given. I used to solve it by casually asking someone, ‘Where is *insert name here* sitting now?’, which got extremely embarrassing if the person I was asking was actually *insert name here*. And, interestingly, while I don’t see people as colours, they do make a certain shape inside my head. Maybe the two conditions are linked?

  3. Wonderful thoughts. Thank you for sharing.

    I do know this: Your heart sees the world exquisitely, wonderfully, like no other. And your mind expresses this so clearly, so powerfully, so passionately.

    I am awed and thankful to have found your work.

  4. I have the opposite problem, I can recognise people who I haven’t seen for decades, but trying to recall names of people, even people I work with, can be an embarrassing issue.
    We’ve met several times at book signings in That London, at Forbidden Planet, but the last was quite some time ago, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I got a quizzical look should we meet again.
    Which would be nice, I’ve got a bunch of your more recent books I’d like to get signed, and I keep hoping for a visit to maybe Topping & Co’s lovely shop in Bath, or Waterstones.

  5. This is very similar to my own experience. This is coupled with a crippling fear of falsely identifying people i.e. going up and talking to them and it not being who I thought it was. It makes meeting people in crowds a bit daunting.

    The other side effect is it can take me a long time to work out who’s who in a TV series. Like seasons. I have to stick with it and take it on faith it’ll fall into place eventually.

    On the up side I’m better than most at identifying voices. I’ll sometimes recognise the voice of an actor but not the face e.g. Anthony Hopkins in Thor recently.

    I had a dream not so long ago that I witnessed a murder but couldn’t recall the face of the murderer! I only identified them when I heard the same voice speak! That’ll make a short story one day…..

  6. Oh my goodness, it’s so good to read about someone else with this problem! I first noticed it at secondary school, that I wasn’t always able to picture some of the kids in my class. Now I occasionally can’t even picture my own children, or I have to sometimes work hard to do so, which naturally is quite distressing. It can make interacting with others in a large group quite difficult, when I’m not sure if I’ve met someone before, and can’t even remember their name if I have.

    Harry August is one of my favourites, by the way, and I’m in the middle of Touch and am engrossed by it!

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