New research reveals face blindness may be more common than scientists believed


A new research found that face-blindness probably affects as many as three per cent of the world’s population – significantly more people than initially believed.

Face blindness, also known as developmental prosopagnosia, was previously thought to affect 2 to 2.5 per cent of people.

But researchers at Harvard Medical School and the VA Boston Healthcare System found that of 3,341 individuals involved in their research, 31 of them had major prosopagnosia and 72 of them had a milder form. 

Face blindness, a mysterious condition in which an individual perceives the faces of those they know as unfamiliar, or recognizes strangers’ faces, can cause severe social anxiety, according to researchers.

The results of the Harvard study, which were published in the scientific journal Cortex last month, are “important on several levels,” according to psychiatrist Joseph DeGutis.

“The majority of researchers have used overly strict diagnostic criteria and many individuals with significant face-recognition problems in daily life have been wrongly told they do not have prosopagnosia,” he said

The web-based research tested participants using different methods, including asking them whether they experience difficulties recognizing faces in their everyday lives, and asking whether they could identify the faces of celebrities and other famous people. That test can be completed online.

“Face blindness is fascinating on several levels,” said DeGutis in an interview with Harvard Medical School. “Humans are remarkably good at recognizing familiar faces and this is done with very little effort. We know that this face ‘super-power’ relies on several specific perceptual processes: holistic face processing-seeing the face as an integrated whole, for instance; memory processes, readily associating faces with person-related knowledge; and specialized brain mechanisms and regions, too, such as the fusiform face area.”

Researchers say that prosopagnosia, or face blindness, can be caused by a brain injury to the occipital or temporal regions of the brain, but this is rare, impacting an estimated one in 33,000 Americans.

It can also be a lifelong condition caused by genetic or developmental abnormalities. This condition is referred to as developmental prosopagnosia, DeGutis said.

The psychologist said researchers hope the results lead to an expanded diagnosis, because even a mild form can have negative impacts, and can be treated in different ways from more severe cases.

He said too that an earlier diagnosis may help those with the condition monitor themselves for age-related decline in the future.

Reporting for this story was paid for through The Afghan Journalists in Residence Project funded by Meta.

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