What To Know About Prosopagnosia, the Condition That Causes Face Blindness

Brad Pitt recently opened up about having face blindness. While it’s rare, it can cause difficulties for children. Here’s what you should know.

Person with paper bag over head with question marks
Photo: Getty

Seeing a familiar face can be comforting on the first day of school or a fun surprise on a Disney vacation.

But not everyone can remember people's faces, even those of their own family and friends. Some research indicates that about 1 in 50 suffer from some degree of a rare neurological disorder known as prosopagnosia, or facial blindness. In a new GQ interview, Brad Pitt says he thinks he is one of those people.

"Nobody believes me!" Pitt said. "I wanna meet another."

Pitt previously spoke about this condition in a 2013 Esquire interview and said it's the reason he often stays home. He says his inability to recognize the faces of people he knows causes some to think he's aloof.

Children can also suffer from this condition, though a diagnosis is difficult. Here's what parents should know about facial blindness.

There are two types of prosopagnosia, researchers Richard Cook and Federica Biotti wrote in a 2016 issue of Current Biology.

  • Acquired prosopagnosia results from a brain injury, such as a stroke or accident, and typically occurs in adults.
  • Developmental prosopagnosia occurs when people struggle to recognize faces without having experienced a brain injury. These individuals usually have typical intelligence and vision and don't struggle to recall other aspects of their lives.

Cook and Biotti say the reason people develop facial blindness remains unknown, but it may be hereditary.

UK professor Sarah Bate wrote that it can be challenging to differentiate between facial blindness and other behavioral issues in children. But common symptoms in kids include:

  • Consistent difficulty recognizing familiar people in unexpected places, such as identifying a soccer coach while grocery shopping
  • Clinginess in public places because they're afraid to be separated from you in an unfamiliar place
  • Difficulty imagining a familiar face and an unusual tendency to rely on other external characteristics, like a teacher's hairstyle, instead of facial features
  • Social withdrawal at school or in activities
  • Struggling to follow plots on TV shows and movies

Cook and Biotti wrote that prosopagnosia can impact the lives of children in several ways. "At school, children with the condition can have problems recognizing friends and teachers," they said.

If the child attends a school that requires uniforms or is around people with similar hairstyles, it can be particularly difficult to differentiate between people. Similar clothing and hairstyles remove unique identifying external features, forcing the child to focus on facial features—an issue for kids with prosopagnosia.

Diagnosis is tricky. Cook and Biotti said the condition is not included in the Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a psychiatric disorder, and "no formal diagnostic criteria exist." Current diagnostic approaches include:

  • Cambridge Face Memory Test: A child will be shown three faces. One is the target face, and two are the distractors. The child will be asked to identify the target face.
  • Cambridge Face Perception Test: A child will be asked to put sequences of faces in order based on how similar they look to the target face.

Typically, providers and researchers will use multiple computer-based face recognition tests and self-reporting. They will only diagnose a child with facial blindness if there's a large amount of evidence.

Unfortunately, there is little in the way of treatment options available for children with facial blindness because not much is known about the condition, Bates wrote. But you can advocate for your child by speaking with school officials and asking them to have other children identify themselves by name when they approach your child can help with recollection. Assigned seats can also help a child remember who is who.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles