Close Encounters of an Unfamiliar Kind

I think I've got poor face recognition. How common is this condition called prosopagnosia?

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Reading Gene Weingarten's column in the Washington Post Magazine Sunday, I saw myself in the proverbial mirror—and I almost didn't recognize the face staring back.

In "Losing Face," Weingarten shares his self-diagnosis of mild prosopagnosia: "I have trouble recognizing and remembering faces," he writes. I long ago came to the conclusion that I, too, have this condition. I've never asked a doctor about it, but many a friend has been dumbfounded by my inability to recognize a given actor from one movie to the next. And more than a few acquaintances have been perplexed or offended when I've failed to recall their name on a second—or third, or fourth—meeting.

In my case, it's not just a matter of having trouble recalling a person's name—though I certainly struggle with that. It's that I often can't connect a face with any of the mental data I instantly should be able to associate with it: the name, the circumstances of our acquaintance, the sound of his or her voice, and so on. It's as if I have a large database in my head that contains all these things except a visual map of the face. (Curiously, I'm sometimes more able to identify a person when I answer the phone and hear the voice than I am during an unexpected face-to-face encounter. When I run into someone I don't recognize, the name occasionally comes back to me when the person starts speaking.)

This may sound like a trivial or even amusing idiosyncrasy. But it has real social repercussions. It's not uncommon for me to reintroduce myself to someone with whom I've previously had one or more extended conversations. Weingarten nicely captures how embarrassing that can be.

I'm curious to know more about this condition and what, if anything, a person with a mild form of it can do to enhance face recall. Does anyone out there know how common prosopagnosia is or how broad a spectrum of symptoms it can have? Are there mental exercises that are effective in managing it?

I'm also interested in hearing readers' personal experiences with face-recognition problems.