Saturday, March 03, 2012

Prosopagnosia – a beginner’s guide

Foreword: As I have no idea whether I can be funny in print anymore and I made two people laugh in the bar last night, I’m going to have another bash at writing my blog. As will become clear, I have absolutely no idea who those two people were and that’s not because I was drunk, or because I don’t know those people, it’s because I have PROSOPAGNOSIA.

According to Wikipedia, Prosopagnosia is a disorder where the ability to recognize faces is impaired. Apparently it’s inherited and about 2.5% of the population suffer from it. I first heard about it when I read Oliver Sack’s book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”.

“Ha ha”, I thought, “Man can’t recognize his wife. Ha ha ha”. The reason I thought “Ha ha ha” was because this was back in 1988 and “lol” hadn’t been invented yet. And also because I didn’t realize that I had it myself.

Thus far I have managed to avoid thinking people are hats (apart from during Carnival) but almost daily I have incidents where I meet people and totally fail to recognize them. Being a Prosopagnostic is particularly hard living in a small town as you are constantly bumping into people you know, or are supposed to know. My advice to Prosopagnostics is to either wear a t-shirt saying “I am Prosopagnostic. This is why I don’t recognize you” or move to a large city, or just keep moving. Avoid building up any friendships, and don’t use the same shops or services more than once.

My favourite ever case of Prosopagnosia happened to my best friend Rachel. She was walking down the Kings Road one day and bumped into her mother who totally blanked her. “Mum”, she said, “it’s me.” “Oh sorry, darling, I didn’t recognize you out of context”. I actually always recognize my mother but that’s because she is always in the same place.

The weird thing about my Prosopagnosia is that the number of people that I CAN recognize is astonisingly high. I can see a poker player for the first time in five years and not only recognize them, but also spell their name correctly, complete with any umlauts or circumflexes they are using as affectation. Sometimes I can even tell them interesting facts such as the fact that they used to be the Idaho Risk Champion or were born north of the Arctic Circle.

But I can’t recognize Aaron Gustavson or Harrison Gimbel and it doesn’t matter how many times I meet them. It’s particularly embarrassing because both have won major tournaments and been interviewed by me at some length. Aaron won EPT London in 2009 for £850,000. That’s a lot of money and you would think it would be in anyone’s interest to remember what Aaron looks like especially if you’re in a bar ... which is where I always am when I fail to recognize him. Again, despite the bar reference, I need to stress: I am not drunk, I have Prosopagnosia.

Aaron is a good-natured lad so he never minds reminding me that yes, we have met before, and why. The last time we met (the day after we had spent an entire evening sitting next to each other) was in a bar in San Remo and at that point I took a picture of him and put it next to his name in my phone. We haven’t met since – or at least I don’t think so.

Aaron Gustavson (possibly)

Harrison Gimbel won the PCA in 2010 for $2.2 million, even more reason to remember him than Aaron really. I interviewed Harrison several times during that event but every time I’ve seen him since, he’s had to tell me who he is.

Harrison Gimbel (definitely)

The third player I can’t recognize is Kent Lundmark who won EPT Barcelona but as no one can remember Kent unless he is wearing his blue-and-white striped hoodie, this does not count as Prosopagnosia. And in Kent’s case, he almost always IS wearing his blue-and-white striped hoodie so that’s OK. The fourth unrecognizable player is Carlos Mortensen. I have no idea what Carlos wears because I’ve never seen him, although I notice from my player lists that he’s often there. Carlos Mortensen was World Champion in 2001 but absolutely no one can recognize him, even if he is sitting under a giant poster of himself (like he was at EPT Barcelona one year).

With Joserafa, I have double Prosopagnosia. Joserafa is two people called Jose and Rafa. I have known Joserafa really well for about six years. They are our Spanish PR guys and great friends of mine. One is very tall and the other is shorter (very short actually but I’m worried he’ll read this so let’s just say shorter). The first time I ever met Joserafa, I got their names the wrong way round. Jose is the tall one, Rafa is the other one but I got it wrong and now, no matter how hard I try, I can’t remember which is which. I now call both of them Joserafa. They call me Mad.

Joserafa and me in Joserafa's favourite city (Malaga)

Apologies also to Gugga and Aisling (who, in my head, are now known as Aislinggugga).

Prosopagnosia is also tricky if you’re on an internet dating site and send a message to someone you know, but don’t recognize. That happened to me two weeks ago. I play tennis with the guy every Friday night.

The other problem with my Prosopagnosia is that it is segueing straight into my perfectly normal age-related memory loss. Luckily I hang out with lots of people who are 35 and it’s afflicting all of us. We are so hopeless at remembering the score in tennis, that it often takes us five minutes of backtracking to work it out. Last night it was so bad that a guy playing on the adjacent court asked if he could keep the score on our behalf. I have no idea who he was.