GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — How many times have you thought to yourself, ‘I’m so bad at remembering people’s names?’ Imagine not being able to recall faces — not just those of people you meet, but also of your colleagues, your friends and even your family.
Michael Furman, 22, works as a production assistant at WOOD TV8. He’s full of compliments. His colleagues will tell you he’s always commenting on something they’re wearing. Furman’s compliments are sincere but his kind words also serve another purpose.
“Commenting and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, you have a lovely shirt on today,’ it helps me be like, ‘This person is wearing this shirt today. Got it. That is who that it,'” Furman said.
Furman has a condition called prosopagnosia. It’s also known as face blindness.
“I think it’s one of these very fascinating conditions that really speaks to how complicated the brain is,” said Dr. Nick Lannen, a neurologist with Corewell Health in Grand Rapids.
Lannen said Furman is not alone. Face blindness is actually a relatively common condition.
“It’s not that they can’t see the face, it’s that they have trouble putting all the bits and pieces of a face together to recognize it as that individual,” Lannen said.
Lannen said face blindness can develop as part of other larger conditions like strokes, Parkinsons or Alzheimer’s. But there are basically two types of the condition: one can result from a lesion in part of the brain and the other simply runs in the family.
“I was just casually talking to my mom about struggling with names and keeping up and strategies to remember people’s names,” Furman said. “She was like, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, face blindness is a thing,’ and explained to me all her symptoms and everything that goes with that. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it makes total sense.'”
Furman said pictures help. He’s always been drawn to pictures of friends and good memories. They help him remember. Another coping mechanism is something he calls his name book.
“As soon as I meet people, I’ve started the name book on my phone. I’ve connected to a certain memory of somebody that’s not in regard to their face and I write down their name and the nickname I give them,” Furman said.
Just as Furman hasn’t always known he has face blindness and he hasn’t always been comfortable talking about it. He did confide to some friends in college, who responded in the kindest way possible.
“It was amazing because after I told them, they secretly went behind my back and took Polaroid pictures of each other and put it on a big board with their names written on it. They gave it to me as a big poster to hang up,” Furman said.
Though Furman has never been officially diagnosed, his mother has. Lannen said most people with the condition will never be diagnosed, but if they describe the symptoms, you should take them at their word.
“It is one of these things that fall on a gradient and a bell curve. So there are people who may be a little below average with faces and you should trust them when they report that and be sympathetic,” Lannen said.
Furman is taking his love of pictures and working toward a career in film. He said one of his biggest fears is insulting somebody by not remembering who they are. Lannen said it’s important for the rest of us to have empathy when things like that happen.
“It’s one of these very fascinating conditions. It’s an underappreciated condition, it’s a hard-to-treat condition, but it’s definitely a real condition,” Lannen said.