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.