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I can't recognise faces
HE HAS not recognised girls he is dating, been unable to tell colleagues apart and even failed to recognise his own brother.
But he isn’t forgetful or absent-minded.
Paul Schofield has prospagnosia – also known as face blindness.
At its worse the condition can result in people not being able to recognise their own children, parents or even themselves in a mirror.
It is thought that the condition results from a specialised part of the brain, which usually recognises faces, not working, meaning sufferers are using parts of their brains which are less effective at the task.
Luckily for Paul, who lives in Gurnard on the Isle of Wight with his wife Jenny, he has a relatively mild version of the condition, but it has still got him into some scrapes.
“When I was about 17, I met this girl and thought she was very nice,” says the 63-year-old.
“It was a time when people didn’t really have telephones. I had her address and went round to ask her out and this girl answered the door. I said ‘Is Loretta in?,’ but that was who it was. I thought it was her sister. I didn’t think it was her at all. She looked annoyed and she didn’t go out with me.
“If she’d thought about it she’d have realised I wanted to go out with her because I liked her, not because of how she looked.”
Throughout his life there have been hundreds of occasions when he has guessed who someone is and got it wrong or not recognised someone he does know.
Another dating disaster happened after a girl had misunderstood something he had said and their relationship had ended.
A few months later he was telling what he thought was another young woman about the ‘awful’ girl he’d dated only for her to point out that she was the same person.
Luckily the girl in question laughed the incident off and they have remained friends for some 40 years, but not everyone has found Paul’s confusion amusing.
There were two different people he worked with who to him looked identical – in fact he didn’t even realise they weren’t the same person. One of the pair got extremely angry when Paul repeatedly introduced him as someone else.
Normally after he has seen someone a number of times he is able to remember what they look like but once when he ran into his brother somewhere completely unexpected he didn’t know who he was.
Over the years, Paul has figured out his own strategies for remembering people, such as their voice and mannerisms, but it was only around eight years ago that he realised he had a definable condition.
“A colleague was doing a crossword and he must have looked a word up,” says the retired air traffic control systems engineer who now writes books on psychic phenomena.
“He said ‘Prospagnosia, I’ve never heard of that before. It’s when people can’t recognise faces’.
“I didn’t say anything but I thought it sounded like me.”
Paul kept his face blindness a secret at work, fearing that it would be held against him and restrict his job opportunities.
He learnt to pretend that he had been thinking of something else when he didn’t recognise people and to bluff when he realised part way through talking to someone that they weren’t who he thought they were.
But now that he has retired he feels he can open up about it in the hope that it will help raise awareness about the condition, which affects around two per cent of the population, and help break down prejudice against those with it.
He is currently taking part in research into the condition at Bournemouth University, led by Dr Sarah Bate.
The research has included a number of tests including one where he was shown pictures of famous people.
“I didn’t do well on it,” he says.
“I thought Winston Churchill was David Jason from Only Fools and Horses!”
Through the testing he has learnt to study people’s features, noting such things as the shape of their eyebrows, to help him remember faces and feels his facial recognition is getting better.
And he has come up with a tactic for making sure that he doesn’t offend people At his wife’s suggestion, he has started smiling at everyone he sees on the off chance that he knows them.
“That way I know I won’t offend anyone I know by walking past them!”
* For more information about the study at Bournemouth University, visit.prosopagnosiaresearch.org
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