Brad Pitt fears he has created a false image of himself: one that is aloof, remote, inaccessible, and self-absorbed, he recently told GQ. But the reality is, he believes he struggles with undiagnosed prosopagnosia, also known as “face blindness.”
The problem is especially present when Pitt attends parties or social gatherings. “Nobody believes me!” he said. “I wanna meet another.” And he’s experienced the symptoms for years—in 2013, he told Esquire they discouraged him from leaving the house.
“So many people hate me because they think I’m disrespecting them,” he said at the time. “So I swear to God, I took one year where I just said, this year, I’m just going to cop to it and say to people, ‘Okay, where did we meet?’ But it just got worse. People were more offended.”
He continued: “Every now and then, someone will give me context, and I’ll say, ‘Thank you for helping me.’ But I piss more people off. You get this thing, like, ‘You’re being egotistical. You’re being conceited.’ But it’s a mystery to me, man. I can’t grasp a face and yet I come from such a design/aesthetic point of view. I am going to get it tested.”
He hasn’t been evaluated yet, he told GQ, but diagnosis usually requires a series of face recognition tests conducted by a neurologist.
So, what is prosopagnosia?
The condition, also known as “face blindness,” is characterized by abnormalities, damage, or impairment in the right fusiform gyrus, a fold in the brain that contributes to facial perception and memory, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). It affects a person’s ability to recognize faces. The severity of the condition varies, from not being able to recognize the faces of friends and family members to the inability to distinguish any face at all.
What causes prosopagnosia?
There are two types of prosopagnosia, each with its own cause.
- Developed prosopagnosia: Some people are born with prosopagnosia without having experienced any brain damage, which is a type also known as developmental prosopagnosia, per the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. This type often runs in families and is believed to be the result of genetic mutation or deletion, per the NINDS.
- Then there’s acquired prosopagnosia or the onset of it after brain trauma. It can result from stroke, traumatic brain injury, or certain neurodegenerative diseases, per the NINDS.
While there’s no one universal treatment for prosopagnosia, therapy often involves learning compensatory strategies to enact in social situations where facial recognition is needed. Treatment often involves learning strategies to turn to in social situations. The NINDS says adults whose condition followed a stroke or brain trauma, however, can be retrained to use other clues for recognition with the help of various therapies.
Reports of prosopagnosia date back to antiquity, but Bodamer’s report (1947) of two individuals with face recognition deficits was a landmark paper in that he extensively described their symptoms and declared it to be distinct from general visual agnosia. He referred to the condition as prosopagnosia, which he coined by combining the Greek word for face (prosopon) with the medical term for recognition impairment (agnosia).
Prior to the 21st century, almost all cases of prosopagnosia that were documented resulted from brain damage, usually due to head trauma, stroke, or degenerative disease. Cases due to brain damage are called acquired prosopagnosia: these individuals had normal face recognition abilities that were then impaired. Acquired prosopagnosia is often (though not always) apparent to people who suffer from it, because they have experienced normal face recognition in the past and so they notice their deficit.
If you have experienced a noticeable decline in your face recognition abilities, you should contact a neurologist; any sudden decline may indicate the existence of a condition that needs immediate attention. In cases of developmental prosopagnosia (sometimes called congenital prosopagnosia), face recognition problems are present early in life and are caused by neurodevelopmental impairments that impact face processing mechanisms. Face recognition ability varies substantially in people with normal abilities; some people are really good, others are poor, and most people are somewhere between these extremes.
People with developmental prosopagnosia appear to make up the low end of the distribution of face recognition abilities. On the opposite end of the distribution are super recognizers, who have extraordinarily good face recognition. If you think you’re a super recognizer and you’re interested in research participation, please contact us. Developmental prosopagnosics have never recognized faces normally so their impairment is often not readily apparent to them.
As a result, many developmental prosopagnosics are unaware of their prosopagnosia even as adults. Developmental prosopagnosia in children can be especially difficult to identify. For more information on developmental prosopagnosia in kids, please visit this website.
Many people with developmental prosopagnosia report family members with face processing deficits, and several families with multiple developmental prosopagnosics have been documented. A genetic contribution to many cases of developmental prosopagnosia fits with results from twin studies in the normal population that indicate that differences in face recognition ability are primarily due to genetic differences.
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