Face Blindness research sparks interest once again

Bournemouth University’s (BU) research directed by Dr. Sarah Bate has received even more attention as Dr. Rachel Bennetts featured on two different radio shows this week. The research looks at a condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, where sufferers are unable to recognize familiar faces including those of their friends and families.

Dr. Bennetts, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Face Processing Disorders at BU, has recently been a guest for two radio shows, BBC Radio Wales and BBC Radio 5 Live. She said in the interviews: “Most of us recognize faces on a daily basis without even having to think about it. But with sufferers of face blindness, it’s a whole different story.” In her interview, she talked about the recent developments in their research and how they have informed policy, with the NHS recognising the condition on the NHS Choices website.

The research by BU has been paramount in raising awareness of the condition; before this, prosopagnosia did not receive enough attention to be registered as a life effecting condition even though 1 in 50 UK individuals are believed to suffer from prosopagnosia. Taking part in interviews such as those on the radio and giving quotes for national newspapers, the team have been able to spread the word about their successful breakthroughs, allowing them to go even further into the developments of their research.

By Charlotte Cranny-Evans

Charlotte is a graduate of Budmouth College in Weymouth, who is working at Bournemouth University in the Press and PR Department. She joined BU on a Sir Samuel Mico Scholarship, which provides 10 students from the college with work experience for four weeks over the summer.

Face blindness formally recognised by NHS Choices, after work by BU academic

Following work with Dr Sarah Bate from BU’s Centre for Face Processing Disorders, NHS Choices have formally recognised prosopagnosia (face blindness) as a condition.

The ‘Introduction to Prosopagnosia’ can be viewed on the NHS Choices website here.

Dr Bate said: “I’m delighted by this news and so pleased to have been a part of the process. This small action will really help to increase understanding among the general public and ensure that people with prosopagnosia receive the recognition and support they need.”

Since 2004 Dr Bate and her colleagues have been researching this little-known condition, which is characterised by the inability to recognise faces. Until the last decade it was thought the disorder was very rare, acquired following a brain injury. We now know 2% of the population are born with a developmental form of the condition. This includes 300,000 children in the UK alone.

Prosopagnosia can vary depending on severity. Some sufferers struggle to put a name to a face whereas others simply cannot recognise people they have known their whole lives. It can be as severe as not being able to recognise your own child at the school gate or even to pick out your own face from a line-up of photos.

It is the effects that are most problematic though. In extreme cases people can withdraw socially, become depressed, leave their job, or suffer endless embarrassment.

The action by NHS Choices comes after Dr Bate’s extensive outreach programme instigated the tabling of an Early Day Motion to raise awareness of face blindness in the House of Commons.

Local MPs asked questions in Parliament on her behalf and in July 2013 Minister of State for Care and Support, Norman Lamb MP made the commitment.

“NHS Choices will be including information about prosopagnosia in the A to Z of medical conditions on its website,” he said. “This will help to promote better understanding among the wider general public and ensure that people with prosopagnosia receive the recognition and support they need”.

The NHS Choices page on prosopagnosia is informed by Dr Bate’s work and links to BU’s Centre for Face Processing Disorders. It is hoped this will help people to recognise prosopagnosia and direct them to the best possible support available for them.

“Now prosopagnosia is formally recognised by the NHS we’ll be in a much better position to tackle our next goals,” explained Dr Bate.

“Prosopagnosia is a very challenging condition. People experience social isolation, often leading to depression and other difficulties. It affects their education, working life and relationships.

“Ideally we think prosopagnosia should be covered in GP training, teacher training and in school special needs provision. Only then will people really get the recognition and support they so desperately need.”

Just last week Dr Bate hosted a roundtable in the Commons calling for greater public awareness of the condition. Read more about this event and the outcomes here.

Bournemouth University receives grant to raise prosopagnosia awareness


Bournemouth University’s Centre for Face Processing Disorders (CFPD) has been awarded a four-figure sum from the British Psychological Society to raise awareness for prosopagnosia, or face blindness, in the UK.

The money will be used to launch a Face Blindness Awareness Campaign by producing a series of DVDs that highlight face blindness, and to fund a launch event for the campaign.

Dr Sarah Bate, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Lead Researcher within the CFPD, said, “I am delighted to receive this award – these funds and the partnership with the British Psychological Society and Encephalitis Society will formalise our public awareness campaign and ensure maximum exposure and impact is generated.”

Prosopagnosia is a condition characterised by a selective deficit to be able to recognise a familiar person by their face.  It is estimated that one in 50 people experience prosopagnosia, to a lesser or greater degree, but public and professional awareness of the condition is very low.  The Centre aims to rectify this through their campaign.

Every year, the British Psychological Society makes grants to help its members demonstrate the relevance of psychological science to a wider audience.

Professor Catriona Morrison, Chair of the Society’s Psychology Education Board, says, “The range and quality of this year’s grant recipients emphasise how much psychological science can contribute to wider society. Sharing this knowledge with the public is an important part of our work.”

For more information about prosopagnosia, visit the Centre for Face Processing Disorders website.

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Dr Sarah Bate explains face blindness in The Sun

After Brad Pitt admitted he suffered from prosopagnosia – more commonly known as face blindness – the Sun featured the stories of two other people with the condition in its health pages.

They also called on BU’s Dr Sarah Bate, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology who specialises in face recognition, to explain the condition.

People with extreme forms of face blindness struggle to recognise their family, friends, and even their own reflections in the mirror.

Sarah, who has set up an e-petition to get the government to formally recognise prosopagnosia, said in the article: “While some sufferers find prosopagnosia can lead to occasional embarrassment, for others it affects their social aptitude and employment opportunities.

“They might withdraw from social events and choose to work in jobs that avoid the need for face-to-face interaction with colleagues. This can cause anxiety and depression.”

But, she said, some people cope remarkably well with the condition and develop strategies like focusing on non-facial clues – like hairstyles, gait or clothing – to recognise people.

She added: “These strategies might work some of the time but there are always occasions where a familiar person is met out of context and the strategy breaks down.”

Find out more about prosopagnosia and the work taking place at BU

Centre for Face Processing Disorders at BU campaigns for greater recognition of face blindness


Imagine not being able to recognise your own child at nursery or even pick out your own face from a line-up of photos.

This is just how severe face blindness, or prosopagnosia, can be.

“In extreme cases, people might withdraw socially – become depressed, leave their job, or just suffer endless embarrassment,” said Bournemouth University psychologist Dr Sarah Bate.

Dr Bate leads the Centre for Face Processing Disorders at BU, which carries out research to advance understanding of the causes of prosopagnosia and develops training strategies that can help to improve face recognition skills.

The Centre is now campaigning for formal recognition of face blindness, and has launched an e-petition for the issue to be discussed in parliament.

“Children with prosopagnosia can find it really difficult to make friends because all children wear school uniforms in the UK – this takes away any external cues to recognition,” said Dr Bate.

“If children with face blindness seem socially withdrawn, this is often misinterpreted as an indicator of other socio-emotional difficulties or behavioural problems because of the lack of professional awareness of prosopagnosia.”

She added: “Because prosopagnosia is not a formally recognised disorder, many people are reluctant to inform their employer that they have the condition, despite it influencing their performance at work or their relations with colleagues and clients.

“Indeed, many people feel they would be discriminated against if managers became aware of their condition, and this may prevent promotion and impede other opportunities in the workplace.”

Until the last decade or so, face blindness was virtually unknown, with just a handful of documented cases.

But now thousands of people have contacted Bournemouth University, the largest research centre in the UK investigating the condition.

Dr Bate estimates one in 50 people suffer from prosopagnosia to some degree – some struggle to put a name to a face while others can’t recognise people they have known their whole lives.

Those with severe forms of the condition typically cannot recognise spouses, children or other family members and some cannot even recognise their own reflections in the mirror.

Dr Bate said: “I imagine there is such low awareness of prosopagnosia because it has traditionally been thought of as a rare disorder, and only recently has it become clear that it affects many people.

“Someone said to me recently that public awareness about prosopagnosia is where Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) was 20 years ago, and there’s a real upwards battle to achieve sufficient recognition amongst the public and professionals.”

The disorder can be acquired following neurological trauma or illness, such as a head injury or stroke, but many more people suffer from a developmental form of the condition and have lifelong difficulties in face recognition.

There may be as many as 1.5 million prosopagnosics in the UK alone, but public and professional awareness of the condition is low.

Dr Bate hopes that the Centre’s public awareness campaign will lead to greater recognition of prosopagnosia.

The campaign includes an e-petition, which needs 100,000 signatures to have the condition discussed in parliament.

“It’s going to take a while to achieve the required number of signatures, but it will get people talking about prosopagnosia and discussing the importance of proper recognition,” she said.

“If the issue does get discussed by government, it’s possible that we can use our research to advise about the need for professional awareness of the condition, and work with appropriate committees to provide information that can be distributed via the NHS and educational and occupational pathways.”

You can sign the e-petition here

To find out more about face blindness and the work of the Centre for Face Processing Disorders visit www.prosopagnosiaresearch.org.

Work of BU’s Centre for Face Processing Disorders featured in CBBC documentary

The work of the Centre for Face Processing Disorders at BU was featured in a documentary on the CBBC channel.

My Life: Who Are You? followed 14-year-old Hannah, who has been diagnosed with prosopagnosia, more commonly known as face blindness.

Hannah has one of the most extreme cases of face blindness in the UK, following a brain disorder when she was eight, and cannot recognise her parents, best friend, or even her own face in the mirror.

The half-hour documentary showed Hannah and her family coming to the Centre for Face Processing Disorders at BU, and working with Dr Sarah Bate and her team.

Dr Bate, who is one of the leading experts in prosopagnosia, tested Hannah using eye-tracking technology to see where she looks when trying to recognise a face.

She also gave her homework exercises to do to try and train a different part of Hannah’s brain to help recognise people.

Dr Bate said: “[Hannah] is one of the most severely face blind people we’ve had here.

“It’s possible another part of the brain may take over and, to some extent, she might then recover some of her face processing ability.”

The documentary also shows Dr Bate conducting an exercise in one of the university lecture theatres, where Hannah had to try and pick out her friends and relatives from a line-up of people.

She manages to recognise them all, although some of them have to speak before she realises who they are.

In the documentary, Hannah also meets other people with face blindness – including Dragon’s Den star Duncan Bannatyne – to see how they deal with the disorder.

You can watch My Life: Who Are You? here.