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Do I know you? Quite a few times in my life Iíve been blamed as lazy and unkind to say hallo to my friends and acquaintances, passing them on the street or hallways like strangers. Being deeply in my thoughts, that was my typical excuse. Even I myself believe(d) in it. Now, thanks to a recent article in Time, I can offer a different pardon: a mental condition of prosopagnosia or, more informally, face blindness. Iím not a severe case, I think. And Iím not sure I would like to distribute that article to every one I (should) know (recognize); maybe Iíll stick with the "deep thoughts" version.

prosopagnosia (face blindness) : do I know you?

The disorder was thought to be exceedingly rare and mainly a result of brain injury. Until a few years ago there were perhaps 100 documented cases, says Ken Nakayama, a professor of psychology at Harvard. But a team of German researches recently took the first stab at charting its prevalence, and the results, published in June in the American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A, were remarkable. The new study showed that prosopagnosia (from Greek prosopon for face and agnosia for ignorance) is highly heritable and surprisingly common, afflicting, in some form, about 1 in 50 people - more than 5 million in USA alone.

Within that group of sufferers, however, the condition varies widely. For the vast majority, the problem is not so much about detecting a face - prosopagnostics can see eyes, noses and mouths as clearly as anyone else - as it is about recognizing the same set of features when seeing them again. Itís a disability that complicates everything from following a movie plot to perp of a lineup. While mild prosopagnostics can train themselves to memorize a limited number of faces (itís said to be like learning to distinguish one stone from another), others grapple with identifying family members and, in extreme cases, their own face.

Most prosopagnostics learn to cope early on. They distinguish people based on cues like hairstyle, voice, gait or body shape. They avoid places where they could unexpectedly run into someone they know. They pretend to be lost in thought while walking. They act friendly to everyone - or to no one. In short, they become experts at masking their dysfunction. That is probably why the disorder went unnoticed for so long.

Sora Song: Do I know you, Time, Sep 18, 2006, p.49.

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