A lot of people think Brad Pitt is a jerk. If someone he has worked with or a friend he hasn’t seen in a few years comes up to him and says, “Hi, Brad,” his reaction might be, at best, lukewarm. He could even seem displeased and not greet them by name.

Brad Pitt, it turns out, isn’t being a jerk. He has a condition called prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. It makes it difficult, if not impossible, for him to recognize people by their faces. (Pronounced pro-so-pag-NO-shah, it come from prosop, the Greek word for face, and agnosia, which means no knowledge.)

There is a part of the brain, located in the fusiform gyrus, that allows us to recognize faces. It can be damaged by disease or injury or it can simply not develop properly. Whatever the cause, if it’s not working, you can’t recognize faces. Makes no difference if you have 2020 vision, can see colors, are sharp as a whip, and can drive safely, if you are face blind you can’t even recognize your own face in photos or in the mirror.

How does someone with prosopagnosia tell one person from another? They have to use secondary clues such as a person’s height, clothes, body shape, walk, voice, and hair and skin color. A person who is face blind can become very adept at using secondary clues. But if someone they haven’t seen for awhile walks up, it may be difficult to identify them. Particularly if that someone has lost or gained weight, is hoarse, or has dyed their hair.

Another difficulty is that our memories of people are tied to their faces. If you can’t tell one face from another, memories about people can slip away. Imagine the trouble you’d have following the plot of movies and TV shows if you couldn’t keep track of the characters.

Prosopagnosia is more prevalent that you might think. It is estimated that two and a half percent of the population is face blind. That means that in a group of one hundred people, there’s a good chance that one or two can’t recognize faces.


Face blindness can be particularly challenging for children, who may have no idea that other kids possess an ability that they don’t. They wonder why everyone else seems to make friends more easily than they can. The condition can result in acute shyness and may even be misdiagnosed as an emotional problem—depression, even. Only in recent years have tests been developed for childhood prosopagnosia.

If almost three percent of the population has some form of face blindness, then it stands to reason that a number of famous people must have it. Here are a few. In addition to Brad Pitt, there’s Alan Alda (actor), Chuck Close (painter), Paul Foot (comedian), Stephen Fry (actor), Jane Goodall (primatologist), Steve Wozniak (co-founder of Apple), and Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden.

If you met any of these people twice, don’t be offended if they didn’t recognize you the second time.


Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: