Face blindness: People who can't recognize faces

60 Minutes reports on face blindness, a condition that prevents people from recognizing faces -- even those of their own family members.

It is hard to imagine anyone being unable to recognize the face of their own mother, or child. But people who suffer from prosopagnosia, or face blindness, find it difficult or even impossible to recognize the faces of famous people like the president, A-list actors, people they have known for years -- even family members. Lesley Stahl talks to several people who are face blind, including Dr. Oliver Sacks, the renowned author and neurologist, the portrait artist Chuck Close, and scientists studying the condition, for a two-part 60 Minutes report to be broadcast Sunday, March 18 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.

The condition first got its name after World War II when a couple of soldiers with head wounds came back unable to recognize their wife or parents. And until recently, even the medical community was largely unaware that people could be born face blind. Many people go through their lives unaware the condition exists, and with no idea they have it.

Stahl's report will explain face blindness -- how it is that someone can see a familiar face perfectly clearly yet not recognize it -- in several adults and a child who've had the condition their whole lives, as well as a woman who woke up face blind after surgery to remove a brain tumor. The second part of Stahl's report investigates how the scientific community is exploring where and how face recognition functions in the brain. Stahl also reports on an even lesser-known phenomenon that is the opposite of face blindness: super recognition. Super-recognizers, as they're known, can never forget a face -- even recognizing people they met casually (like a waiter or salesperson) more than a decade later, or instantly recognizing photographs of celebrities as young children.

Dr. Sacks has written about his own struggles with face blindness recently, so that people will understand the condition and its symptoms, which can come across as just plain rudeness. "People do think you may be snubbing them or stupid or mad or inattentive," he tells Stahl. "That's why it's so important to recognize what one has, and to admit it."

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