Face to face: Alumnus talks facial recognition

Photo: Hero images/Alamy. 

By Pamela Hill Nettleton

Originally published in Marquette Magazine, Winter 2018

Everyone forgets a face now and then. But some people regularly forget their own. Their sight works just fine, but something in their brains works differently. They have trouble recognizing anyone, even themselves.

The face in the mirror is unfamiliar. They bring their children to day care in the morning but don’t recognize them in the afternoon if they’ve changed T-shirts. They walk past co-workers on the street without saying hello because one face looks pretty much like the next. It’s socially awkward, professionally damaging and potentially isolating. They are mistaken for being rude, standoffish or conceited, when what they really are is challenged by an inability to recognize human faces.

It’s called prosopagnosia — “face blindness” — and one of the leading researchers in the field is Dr. Brad Duchaine, Arts ’94. Now a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the Neenah, Wisconsin, native is recognized internationally as a top prosopagnosia expert.

His research is prominent in academic journals and has been highlighted in The New York Times, the Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and on NPR and 60 Minutes, among other media outlets. Internationally some “20 to 25 labs are working on face processing,” says Duchaine, and his work is on the forefront of the relatively young field (the first medical paper on the issue didn’t appear until 1955).

Prosopagnosia can be acquired through a traumatic brain injury or a stroke. It can also be developmental — present from birth.

“When I first got into research 20 years ago, acquired prosopagnosia from brain damage was what was studied,” says Duchaine. “Now we are more aware of a from-birth progression. Developed prosopagnosics are more common than those who are trauma-induced.”

Dr. Brad Duchaine Photo: Mark Washburn.

Duchaine and his colleagues use neuropsychology, recognition and memory tests, and MRI and EEG neurology to look at brain damage and to reveal which areas of the brain “light up” with contrast material when a subject views faces. “This work helps us figure out how regular folks process faces,” he says. “This gives us insight into how bits of the brain are working, helps us chart what parts of the brain deal with what.”

He has also conducted twin studies, comparing facial recognition responses of identical and fraternal twins. That study and his other research into facial recognition ability among families indicate that a strong genetic component to facial recognition exists — important news for brain researchers.

Facial recognition, says Duchaine, “starts early, minutes after birth. Even in the womb, babies are primed to look at faces, they respond to lights that look like faces.”

The ability to recognize parents and friends is critical to a child’s development, and for adults, the ability to read emotions, gender, attractiveness, intention and other qualities in faces is socially and emotionally essential. The lack of such ability significantly affects a person’s daily life.

In the early 1990s, during a developmental psychology class at Marquette with Dr. Michael Wierzbicki, Arts ’75, now associate professor emeritus of psychology, Duchaine remembers the professor mentioning prosopagnosia. “I know right where I was sitting when I heard that,” says Duchaine. “A light bulb went off in that class. I was struck by how the brain does this.”

For Duchaine, Marquette was a second chance. His grades at the University of Arizona were “really bad. … I needed a change of scenery. I tried to transfer to the University of Wisconsin but didn’t get accepted, so I really appreciate that Marquette gave me a chance to turn things around.”

And turn them around he did, graduating summa cum laude in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and joining the cognitive psychology doctoral program at University of California, Santa Barbara. While searching for a dissertation topic, Duchaine learned through a family friend of a 17-year-old boy who suffered from facial recognition issues. “He was in Los Angeles. I was in Santa Barbara at the time, so I loaded my computers into my car,” says Duchaine, who tested the young man for prosopagnosia. The teen was part of an online community of prosopagnosics who communicated on a website run by a man named Bill Choisser, who digitally published his extensive writings about what he called “face blindness.” Duchaine began driving regularly to Choisser’s home in San Francisco for interviews and testing, and wrote his dissertation on Choisser.

Harvard vision researcher Dr. Ken Nakayama read Duchaine’s dissertation and hired him as a postdoctorate fellow. In June 2002 Duchaine published faceblind.org, a website of information about prosopagnosia that also asked people to reach out if they were interested in being research subjects. The researchers sent a follow-up questionnaire to interested participants, and the data collected formed the basis of how researchers around the world continue to identify those with developmental prosopagnosia. Duchaine estimates 2 percent of the population — some six million people — experience prosopagnosia to an extent that affects their daily lives.

In 2005 Duchaine moved to University College in London to run his own lab, but he and Nakayama continued to collaborate, and through their website, heard from more than 6,000 people who suspected they had prosopagnosia.

People with prosopagnosia work out coping mechanisms. They avoid social situations where they might mistakenly greet a stranger like an old friend or an old friend like a stranger. They avoid calling people by name. They choose careers that offer limited personal contact. Many are not aware that they suffer from face blindness, but instead think they have poor memories or bad interpersonal skills.

“Many can recognize their own family or a small group of co-workers,” says Duchaine. “If they have a limited office with five people, they know who they are seeing each day. They use other cues to identify people: shoes, ways of walking, height. They develop ways to deal with it.”

Artist Chuck Close, known for his enormous, close-up portraits of faces, has prosopagnosia and can recognize faces best if he flattens them into photographs. Neurologist and writer Dr. Oliver Sacks, who died in 2015, wrote extensively about his own experiences with facial blindness, and employed an assistant whose job entailed, in part, helping him recognize who he was meeting for lunch. Actor Brad Pitt told Esquire magazine in 2013 and GQ just recently that he “can’t grasp a face” and suspected he might have the disorder, though he had never been tested. Primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall can recognize family, close friends and familiar chimpanzees, but has trouble distinguishing others.

“There’s a continuum of facial recognition, a spectrum,” says Duchaine. Prosopagnosics are at one end, and at the other? Something called super-recognizers, who can read faces with extraordinary accuracy. “There are people who recognize faces even if they are blurry or if they see only the ears,” Duchaine says.

In 2015 Duchaine and colleague Dr. Laura Germine of Harvard Medical School began studying super-recognizers by testing the facial recognition skills of officers on the St. Petersburg, Florida, police force. St. Petersburg was the first U.S. police department to try this approach, but the London Metropolitan Police have identified super-recognizers and put them to law enforcement use since 2011.

So where does Duchaine fit on the facial recognition spectrum? Has his research in the field for the last two decades turned him into a recognition wizard? “Nah,” he laughs. “Maybe the 25th percentile. I’m only so-so.”