Face Blindness: When everyone is a stranger

Imagine you couldn't recognize people's faces, and even your own family looked unfamiliar. Lesley Stahl reports on face blindness, a puzzling neurological disorder.

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Lesley Stahl: So what does that say to you?

Nancy Kanwisher: It tells us that the problem is not that this thing doesn't exist. There it is. But see, that's the fun of science. It's fun to be told you're just completely and totally wrong because now you have to go back and, you know, think anew.

And one thing she and other researchers are thinking about is a phenomenon as mystifying as face blindness -- its polar opposite - super-recognizers like Jennifer Jarett, who say they recognize almost every face they have ever seen.

Lesley Stahl: Waiters?

Jennifer Jarett: Yes.

Lesley Stahl: Salespeople?

Jennifer Jarett: Yes. Yes.

Lesley Stahl: Oh, like, of course.

Jennifer Jarett: Yes, absolutely. Yes. I'll be walking down the street and I'll see someone, and I'll think, "Oh retail." And then I'll remember, "Oh OK. That person works at-- as-- whatever store and that's where I s-- or they used to work at that store 10 years ago." And then I remember.

Lesley Stahl: 10 years ago?

Jennifer Jarett: Yes, yes.

Lesley Stahl: So they're-- it doesn't matter how far back you saw these people?

Jennifer Jarett: Yes, yes.

Lesley Stahl: So as long as you look at a person and take notice, they're in there?

Jennifer Jarett: I don't even know how to get rid of people.

Only a handful of super-recognizers have been discovered so far, and Duchaine and his colleagues had to come up with a whole new way to test them.

Brad Duchaine: So here are three faces here, which you're familiar with.

Lesley Stahl: I am?

It's called the "before they were famous test" because super-recognizers can also recognize faces as they change through time.

Brad Duchaine: Does that help at all?

Lesley Stahl: You sure I know that person?

Brad Duchaine: That's Dick Cheney.

Lesley Stahl: Oh my god. That's Dick Cheney?

He told me the top right was Richard Gere, and the bottom, Nancy Pelosi.

Lesley Stahl: Wow. Those three people have changed dramatically.

He even gave me a hint with this one: he's now an actor.