It might be prosopagnosia, a rare condition that causes face blindness
By Bob Woods
Illustration by Hanoch Piven
rad Pitt has been in more than 70 movies, appeared on countless tabloid covers and is all over social media. Yet, if you have prosopagnosia and meet the Hollywood idol face to face, you won’t even recognize him.
Prosopagnosia, also called face blindness, is a rare neurological disorder that affects about 2% of the population — possibly including none other than Brad Pitt. Although he hasn’t been formally diagnosed, the 58-year-old actor has for years said he suspects prosopagnosia is why he has trouble recognizing people’s faces. He wonders, too, if it explains his reputation for being aloof and narcissistic. “That’s why I stay home,” he told one interviewer regarding the severity of his public discomfort.
While skeptics might consider this merely celebrity angst, prosopagnosia is for real, said James Galvin, M.D., M.P.H., professor of neurology and director of the Miller School’s Comprehensive Center for Brain Health. “The fusiform gyrus is the area of the brain responsible for developing recognition of faces,” he said, adding that the disorder can be either congenital or acquired following a stroke or head injury, or manifest as part of brain degeneration. “If congenital, it might not be recognized till adulthood. If acquired, people may be aware of sudden changes. In cases of degeneration, it rarely sticks out as a unique feature because other things are changing, and the patient may not be aware of it.”
Beyond being a source of complaints about the inability to place faces, prosopagnosia is difficult to diagnose, and there are no treatments. “Most people learn compensatory strategies,” said Jose Romano, M.D., professor of neurology and chief of the Miller School’s Stroke Division. “They recognize a person’s voice, body movements, hairstyle or other distinct features.”
Now that prosopagnosia has attained “celebrity” status, the disorder may become more recognizable, as with Parkinson’s disease after actor Michael J. Fox revealed his diagnosis and HIV following NBA superstar Magic Johnson’s announcement that he had the virus. “Public disclosures can be helpful in destigmatizing conditions,” Dr. Romano said. And that, let’s face it, is a good thing.