What is prosopagnosia, face blindness disorder Brad Pitt blames for not recognizing faces?

Chris Pizzello
·5 min read

Brad Pitt shared in a recent interview that he believes he has prosopagnosia, a rare disorder characterized by the inability to recognize people's faces, also known as face blindness.

In a recent interview in GQ Magazine, the 58-year-old actor told writer Ottessa Moshfegh that he struggles to remember new people. “He’s never been officially diagnosed but thinks he may suffer from a specific condition: prosopagnosia,” the magazine's August cover profile stated.

"He fears it’s led to a certain impression of him: that he’s remote and aloof, inaccessible, self-absorbed. But the truth is, he wants to remember the people he meets and he’s ashamed that he can’t,” Moshfegh wrote.

After Moshfegh told Pitt that her husband thinks he has the same condition, he replied: "Nobody believes me! I wanna meet another.”

Back in 2013, the Oscar winner opened up about his struggle to Esquire.

"So many people hate me because they think I’m disrespecting them,” he said. “Every now and then, someone will give me context, and I’ll say, ‘Thank you for helping me.’ But I piss more people off. You get this thing, like, ‘You’re being egotistical. You’re being conceited.’ But it’s a mystery to me, man. I can’t grasp a face and yet I come from such a design/aesthetic point of view. I am going to get it tested.”

TODAY reached out for comment from Pitt about his efforts to get diagnosed but didn't hear back. But his comments about face blindness have shed light on a serious and debilitating disorder.

What is prosopagnosia, aka face blindness?

“We define it as trouble with recognizing facial identity in the absence of low-level vision problems or higher-level cognitive problems,” Brad Duchaine, Ph.D., professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College, told TODAY. Prosopagnosia is not related to visual impairments, learning disabilities, intelligence, or memory loss.

"If you look in the general population, there's a spectrum of face recognition abilities," said Duchaine. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. “Some people are fantastic. We call those people super recognizers, and then people who are really on the low end of the tail are called prosopagnosics ... maybe the bottom 2%,” Duchaine said. It can range from mild or moderate to more severe.

What causes prosopagnosia?

Prosopagnosia is thought to be caused by a problem with the fusiform gyrus, an area of the brain in the occipital and temporal lobes that's important for face recognition. “There’s a network of regions called face-selective areas … that respond very strongly when faces are shown ​​to people and show little or no response to other categories,” Duchaine said. So if those areas are damaged or fail to develop normally, then you will have problems with face recognition, he added.

There are two types of prosopagnosia. Acquired prosopagnosia is the result of brain damage from something like a head injury, stroke or tumor, Joseph DeGutis, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, told TODAY in a phone interview. Developmental prosopagnosia is the lifelong version and the most common type. DeGutis speculated that this is the kind Pitt thinks he is suffering from.

Prosopagnosia symptoms

The main symptom of prosopagnosia is "a difficulty recognizing people in daily life … people that you should know,” Duchaine explained. Some people with severe prosopagnosia may struggle to recognize their own face — for example, in a mirror or a group photo, he added.

Where prosopagnosics really struggle is when they see people out of context, like bumping into a co-worker at the grocery store. “People with prosopagnosia are more likely to recognize family and close friends than they are to recognize people they’re not as close to, but they still sometimes have trouble recognizing faces they’ve seen thousands of times," Duchaine said.

Most people feel a sense of familiarity when they see a face they've seen before, even if it may take a few moments or clues to recall the person's name or where they met. But prosopagnosics do not feel that initial sense of familiarity from a face. “They don’t even get to the first step,” Duchaine said.

Prosopagnosics also seem to have deficits in their recollection memory, DeGutis explained. They may know a lot of details about a person, but that person’s face won’t trigger the retrieval of that information. “When they see a face, it’s kind of like Teflon in that nothing is sticking to it,” DeGutis added.

People with prosopagnosia may cope by focusing on other traits to identify a person, such as their hair or voice, said Duchaine.

How to test for prosopagnosia

Prosopagnosia is typically diagnosed by a neurologist through a combination of self-reporting and testing to measure facial recognition. “You have to have the experiences in your everyday life where you struggle to recognize faces, then you also need to do poorly on these objective measures,” said DeGutis.

Scientists have created a self-report questionnaire called the Prosopagnosia Index, which goes through prosopagnosia traits to quantify how many apply to a patient.

Two types of prosopagnosia tests are generally used, Duchaine explained. The first are tests that measure a person’s ability to recognize familiar faces, such as celebrities. The second kind will measure facial learning, where you learn a set of unfamiliar faces at the start of the test and then try to recognize them during the test, said Duchaine.

Examples of these tests include the Warrington Recognition Memory for Faces (RMF) and the Benton Facial Recognition Test (BFRT).

Diagnosing acquired prosopagnosia may also involve brain imaging, such as an MRI or a CT scan, to reveal the underlying brain damage.

There is no specific treatment for prosopagnosia. But there is ongoing research into the effectiveness of training programs and rehabilitative approaches to improve facial recognition. “It’s still early days,” said Duchaine.

In the meantime, both experts urge people to be understanding and realize this is a real disorder. “It’s not a snub of you,” Duchain said.

Even if it's Brad Pitt.