You're Not Alone if Face Masks Make it Really Hard to Recognize People

After months of dealing with COVID-19, it’s the new normal to see people wearing face masks in public places. But while the safety precaution helps to prevent and contain the spread of coronavirus, some people are experiencing a whole new problem related to the coverings: a touch of face blindness. 

In a recent preprint study, published on the PsyArXiv Preprints server, researchers found that people were less able to recognize masked faces, compared to unmasked people. For the study, the researchers. from the Centre for Vision Research at York University in Toronto. asked nearly 500 people to complete an adapted, online version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, a way to measure face perception capabilities in humans. The participants looked at unfamiliar faces and then tried to recognize them again under increasingly difficult conditions—but half of the participants viewed faces with surgical-style masks over their noses and mouths. 

While the study hasn't yet been peer-reviewed—and thus, more research is needed—it showed that as much as 13% of participants found it so difficult to recognize masked faces that they may as well have suffered from prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Without masks, only 3.5% scored that low. A similar preprint study—this time from researchers at the University of Stirling in Scotland—found that study participants were less able to recognize faces with masks superimposed on them—even when the faces belonged to familiar celebrities. 

Something to keep in mind, though: Just because you might be struggling right now to recognize masked people, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have face blindness—but it does go a small way to understanding what it’s like to live with the disorder. Here's what to know about face blindness, in general.

What is face blindness?

Face blindness—technically known as prosopagnosia—is a neurological disorder that refers to the inability to recognize faces, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). There are different levels of face blindness: Some people may only find it difficult to recognize a familiar face (this could mean the person's own face), others are unable to differentiate between unknown faces, and in some severe cases, people may not be able to distinguish faces from different objects.

While it's unclear how many people that suffer from face blindness, the best estimates suggest that about 2% of people (1 in 50) have facial recognition problems that have a substantial impact on their daily lives, Brad Duchaine, PhD, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth University, tells Health.

Doctors believe that face blindness is caused by abnormalities or impairment in the brain—specifically the right fusiform gyrus, or a certain fold in the brain that helps with facial perception and memory, per the NINDS. Some people have face blindness their entire lives, while others develop it suddenly after trauma to the brain, such as stroke, injury to the brain, or certain neurodegenerative diseases. Face blindness isn’t caused by impaired vision, learning disabilities, or memory loss.

It's also notable that, while face blindness isn’t a standard symptom of autism spectrum disorder, it does appear to be more common in children who have it, possibly contributing to impaired social development, according to the NINDS. But face blindness in general can be difficult to deal with personally and socially. "In extreme cases, people with face blindness sometimes fail to recognize close family and even their own face in photos or mirrors," Duchaine says. “They also often have trouble following movies and television shows.” 

How is face blindness diagnosed and managed?

Doctors use tests assessing famous face recognition or face learning to formally diagnose face blindness. Two commonly used tests are the Benton Facial Recognition Test (BFRT) and Warrington Recognition Memory of Faces (RMF). But insight into a person's daily life is also a good indicator that something's off: “If people have trouble recognizing people they know well, that's a clear sign of face blindness,” Duchaine adds. 

While there’s no cure for face blindness––it’s a recurring, consistent condition that won’t go away—people who have it can adopt various coping mechanisms to make it easier to identify people. “Prosopagnosics rely on other features to recognize people and also often try to arrange meetings so they don't need to recognize others,” Duchaine says. “For example, if they are meeting someone in a public place, they'll arrive first so the other person has to come to them. Some prosopagnosics also explain their trouble with faces to others, so other people can understand when they don't recognize them in the future.”

Focusing on other visual or verbal clues to identify a person can also help––such as noting the color and texture of their hair, whether they are shorter or taller than average, or how their voice sounds. “To compensate for their problems with faces, they rely more heavily on other information like the hair, body shape, context, and voice,” Duchaine explains. 

Do face coverings make things more difficult for those with face blindness?

Though face coverings can make facial recognition difficult for anybody, and while masks don't cause actual face blindness, they’re not necessarily as big an issue for people with face blindness as you might think. “Face coverings do make it harder for people with face blindness to recognize others, but since many people with face blindness don't rely as heavily on the face, face coverings may have less of an effect on them than people with normal face recognition,” Duchaine says. 

In fact, Duchaine was recently going through responses from people with prosopagnosia who have contacted his research website (the research team includes doctors from Harvard University and University of London) and he came across a message from a woman who said she "loves COVID-19 masks." “It’s because they don't impair her ability to recognize faces but they do impair the ability of other people, so the playing field has been leveled for her,” Duchaine explains. Just something to think about the next time a friend wearing a mask makes you do a double take. 

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