A Super-Recognizer I’m Not

September 18th, 2009

Please Don’t Hate Me Because I Don’t Know Who You Are!

A recent article in Harvard Magazine described how a team of psychologists has identified a subsection of people as “super-recognizers.”  These lucky few have an above average ability to identify others by their facial features.  These are not me.

In fact, as I read this article (which included a story about how a middle-aged Jimmy Cagney recognized a childhood classmate in the street whom he hadn’t seen since they were both kids several decades ago), all I could think of was how I still can’t recognize some of the mothers in my kids’ classes, even after meeting them two, three, four–a dozen, two dozen times.

In my panic to identify people when next I meet them, I’ll focus on one salient feature and cling to that.  One woman I know–who’s good friends with several of my good friends so I run into her once or twice a year–wore glasses when I first met her.  The next four times she said “hi” to me, I had no idea who she was, because she had switched to contacts.   She got a little testy around the fifth time I looked at her blankly and she had to remind me who she was.   To this day when I see her, while I do recognize her, I think her face looks “naked.”   

And there’s a mother at my kids’ school who has a mole and every time I see her, I think “Wait, which mom is she again?” and then I see the mole and I remember.  If she ever goes to a dermatological surgeon, I’m sunk.

So I’m obviously not taking in anyone’s actual features.  My inability to absorb the actual face forces me to seize on other things like glasses, hair, clothing–stuff that can change.   (There were two moms I used to confuse at school, but one wore more lipstick than the other.  Honestly, for a year or two, it was the only way I could remember which was which.)

Most women don’t have moles on their faces or wear distinctive glasses.  As a result, I’m so terrified that I’ll make a mistake and call someone by the wrong name, that I rarely say any names at all when I’m in a social situation–like at school or my husband’s office–where I’ve met everyone a few times and SHOULD know who they are,  but they still tend to blur for me.  It makes me look unfriendly: what kind of person doesn’t greet others by name after having met them more than once?  But it’s terror, not snobbery, that keeps me quiet.

But here’s the (to me) really weird part.  Halfway into watching a new sit-com on TV the other night, I turned to my husband and said, “See that woman?  I think that’s the same actress who plays Pete’s wife on ‘Mad Men.'”

She was wearing modern clothes, as opposed to the 60’s outfits on “Mad Men” and her make-up and hair were also completely different.  She was playing a younger character, too.  And yet . . . something about the face and voice just reminded me of that other character.  So we looked her up on IMDB.

And I was right.  Somehow I had managed to identify this woman who didn’t have a starring role in either show, was really a bit player–but still I recognized her.   

I’ve done this before.  Many times, in fact.  My husband always laughs at how we can watch a “Masterpiece Theatre” mini-series and I’ll spend half the time saying, “He was in ‘Bleak House.’  She was in an old 80’s production of ‘Jane Eyre.’  Oh, I saw her in ‘Room with a View'” and so on.

This makes me crazy.  “How is it possible,” I complained to my husband that night after we had IMDB’ed the actress, “that I can remember some stupid actress’ s face, but I can’t remember which mother is which in Will’s class–when that actually matters?”

To my amazement, he had an explanation.  They had been discussing that very issue at work (guess I’m not the only one who suffers from this) and someone there said, “People get anxious in social situations and worry about what they’ll need to say or do next, so they don’t actually absorb any new information like people’s names or faces.”

Well, that totally nailed it for me.  No one gets more anxious in social situations than I do.  I’ll often lie awake half the night before a school event, and even though the reality is usually perfectly pleasant, I’m a bundle of nerves while I’m there.  Of course it’s all a vicious cycle: a large part of my anxiety is that I don’t feel like I’m good at remembering people’s names and faces, and then I’m so anxious and scared about “performing” that I don’t really absorb anyone’s name or face–and so on.

I’m working on a solution to the problem.  My preference would be to simply stay home all the time, avoiding any and all social situations, but for some reason my husband isn’t all that eager to go everywhere alone for the rest of his married life (which might not be that long if I follow through with this). 

I also think it would help me if people could just be required to wear “HELLO, MY NAME IS  ___________” stickers 24/7 but so far that hasn’t caught on yet, nor has my movement to have people tattoo their names on their foreheads.

But I do have one last idea.  Since my facial recognition skills soar when I’m lying at home alone in my pajamas at night, I’ll just have to recreate those conditions when I’m meeting new people.  So the next time you run into me at a school or work event, come over and say hi.  I’ll be the one lying on the sofa in sweats with my feet up.   Don’t forget to come over and say hi the time after that, too.

Just don’t take it personally if I have no idea who you are.

  • The difference between real people and actors could be that one is in three dimensions and one is in two dimensions (aping three dimensions).

    When you are scared, the adrenalin HELPS you remember things. Helps you create the memories. That makes sense, since remembering WHERE the lion is lying in wait on the path up to the fruit trees is important. They’ve done studies about cramming for a test (and you are scared) versus very sedate, drawn out studying. Cramming works better, apparently. Ask Ted, he was the one who told me about it.

    • Claire says:

      I don’t think my anxiety is an adrenalin-fueled flight or fight kind of thing. I think it more takes the form of a complicated inner monologue: “I should say something witty but not self-centered. Oh, wait, I know that person but how? Shoot, which of the two tall blonds is she? I’m hungry. How do I get away without being rude? I think the tag is sticking out on my top but if I fix it I’ll look stupid.” And so on. The voice inside my head blocks out a lot of information I should be absorbing. That’s how I see it, anyway.

  • Katherine says:

    I just keep my school directories nearby. I can usually figure out the kid’s name by asking my son or daughter. Then I go home and look them up in the directory and the parent’s names are listed too. After about the 4th time I get the name down 🙂

    As I am typing this I am a ball of anxiety getting ready to go to a party where I know about 5 people. I hope I remember their names, reading this is making me nervous. Maybe I will stay home and watch the new episode of iCarly with the kids.

    • Claire says:

      I’ve done the directory trick too and it does help if I can remember the parent/child connection which I can’t always. My problem is I still can’t always tell the different KIDS apart either. In fact, my daughter was just making fun of me for getting all “the dark-haired boys” in her class confused. (I know all the girls and their mothers, but it’s taken me SEVEN years.) I’ve been known to stay home and watch Nickelodeon shows with my kids when I should be out socializing. Disney Channel too . . .

  • rachelhamm says:

    this is really starting to freak me out. I have an UNCANNY ability for recognizing actors and knowing what other films, television shows they were in- EVEN IF I HAVEN’T SEEN THE OTHER MOVIE/SHOW. I don’t seem to have the same problem of not recognizing people in social situations though, maybe that’s because I’m the one people tend to forget. I swear people have to meet me at least 3 or 4 times before they remember who I am. It had given me a bit of a complex, but after reading this blog, I feel a little better about it- it’s not a personal slight against me!

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