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New study to shine a light on face blindness

Researchers at Teesside University are hoping to raise awareness about a rare developmental disorder and find out more about the psychological impact it has on people’s lives.

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Dr Natalie Butcher and Laura Sexton.

Dr Natalie Butcher and Laura Sexton.


They have also set up a screening centre, believed to be the first of its kind in the region, so that people can be tested for Prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness.

Face blindness, in its developmental form, is a disorder affecting around two in every 100 people in the UK. It is an inability to recognise people by their faces alone and in extreme cases, people cannot even recognise their family and friends.

Laura Sexton, a PhD student in Teesside University’s School of Social Sciences, Business & Law, is carrying out research into face blindness, investigating how people with developmental prosopagnosia differ to ‘typical’ recognisers. She has set up the screening centre with her supervisor Dr Natalie Butcher, Senior Lecturer in Psychology.

The pair have undergone specialist training in order to carry out bespoke, in-depth screenings, which involves assessment of face recognition ability, among other skills including emotional recognition, visual tests and questioning about the person’s neuropsychological history. They are encouraging people who feel they may suffer from face blindness to come forward for screening tests in order to find out more about the condition.

Laura said: 'Prosopagnosia affects people in different ways and for some they don’t even realise it is a legitimate condition due to a general lack of awareness.

'For others it can be very hard to cope with and leads to anxiety, stress, embarrassment and feelings of guilt.

'Screening is important in that it allows us to develop a better understanding of the condition. First we need to determine if it is Prosopagnosia and not another underlying issue. Then we need to examine the severity of each case and find out people’s coping mechanisms and how it affects them psychologically.'

People with face blindness often use non-facial cues to recognise others, such as their hairstyle, clothes, voice, or distinctive features. Many describe a fear and avoidance of social situations, such as family gatherings or meetings at work.

Long-term consequences can include a dependence on others, limited employment opportunities, a loss of self-confidence and a restricted social circle.

Dr Butcher said: 'We are not aware of any other screening centres in the region and the more people that we can test, the more we will be able to find out about the condition.

'It is a really important study which we hope will shed new light on a rare condition which is still relatively unknown.'

If you think you may suffer from Prosopagnosia and would like to take part in a screening test at Teesside University, email L.Sexton@tees.ac.uk.

‘The fear of causing offence is my biggest worry’

Dr Lynda Turner, from Darlington, was officially diagnosed with Prosopagnosia in 2015, but has had problems recognising faces for many years.

She said the biggest worry is the fear of offending people and also the embarrassment the condition can sometimes cause.

Lynda, 62, recalls spending the full day with somebody at a work conference, but when they came across each other a few days later, she did not recognise her at all.

‘I just wanted the ground to swallow me up,’ explained Lynda, a retired health practitioner at North Tees Hospital.

‘For me, my biggest worry is that I offend people – that I just walk past or ignore somebody that I’ve met and they think I am arrogant or stuck-up. It can be quite embarrassing but I know there are people who are affected much worse than I am.’

For years, Lynda, a married mother-of-two, did not realise she had a problem – ‘I just thought everybody saw faces in the same way,’ she said.

She developed alternative ways of recognising people, such as hairstyles, familiar clothes, or the fact they may always be walking a dog.

But when she completed an online test, trying to recognise famous faces without hair or glasses for example, she was astounded to realise that even people as well-known as Tony Blair looked completely unfamiliar and she had no idea who they were.

Receiving an official diagnosis has helped Lynda, but she still feels that there needs to be more done to raise awareness about Prosopagnosia.

‘Usually I can laugh about it, but occasionally it can get you down. It is nicer when people understand and you are able to explain to them that it is a recognised condition which affects around 2% of the population in some way.’

Lynda is keen to raise awareness about Prosopagnosia and is exploring opportunities for a support group in the region.

20 March 2017

In the News

New screening centre for 'face blindness'
ITV.com (Web), Unattributed, 20/03/2017; News (web), 20/03/2017; North East Connected, 20/03/2017; The Hippocratic Post, 20/03/2017; The Paper for today, 25/3/17
New screening centre for 'face blindness' Researchers at Teesside University are hoping to raise awareness about a rare developmental disorder. and the psychological impact it has on peoples lives