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Some people never forget a face. Tara Fall can never remember one.
Everyone who walks through Fall’s front door looks like a stranger to her, whether it’s a friend, her husband, or even her children.
“The minute you turn away, they have to start all over again,” NBC Chief Medical Editor Nancy Snyderman told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira. “If you took your glasses off and came back to her, you’re brand new.”
Fall suffers from prosopagnosia, a condition also known as “face blindness.” Scientists haven’t yet figured out exactly what goes wrong in the brains of people with face blindness. But they have learned that the condition isn’t as rare as experts once thought. In fact, a new study found that as many as 2.5 percent of the population may have problems recognizing faces. Most aren’t ever diagnosed because they find coping skills that cover up their deficit.
Fall didn’t always have problems with faces. When she was 27, she had surgery to cure epilepsy that medication hadn’t been able to control. Doctors successfully removed brain tissue that had been sparking Fall’s seizures. But near the end of the operation, Fall had a stroke that ultimately left her unable to recognize even those who are closest to her.
For a mother of two whose husband is overseas in the Navy, life with the condition can sometimes be harrowing.
To recognize her kids Fall usually counts on remembering things like the clothes she dressed them in that morning. “If they were ever to change their clothes at school I’d be in so much trouble,” she said with a laugh.
Fall explained her coping techniques to Snyderman. “I know you through other characteristics,” she said. “Like I’ve already taken in what color clothes you’re wearing, how your nails are done, what color lipstick you have on. I know you through those characteristics.”
Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Iowa who specializes in prosopagnosia, ran a quick experiment for Snyderman to show just how profound Fall’s deficit is.
Feinstein showed Fall photographs of famous people. She recognized Bill Clinton by his “big forehead” and “the hair.” But when she was shown a photo of President Obama in sweats playing basketball, Fall said “I have no idea of who that is.” Out of the Oval Office, he was unrecognizable.
Even more startling was Fall’s inability to recognize a photo of Snyderman – who was standing just across the room. Looking at the photo, Fall said, “No clue. Again, I would say she is someone famous because most females would not go around dressed in a suit like that.”
Feinstein prodded her with clues, and finally said, “It turns out you have interacted with this person. In fact, you interacted with this person today.”
Fall looked around, spotted Snyderman and laughed. “Is it Dr. Snyderman?!”
Her reliance on subtle identifying clues means that in crowded places like Chuck E. Cheese, all the coping strategies can break down, leaving her a little bewildered. She tries to find her daughters by process of elimination. “I call it inclusion and exclusion,” she told Snyderman. “You know, there are little things to include, like you need two girls and they’re gonna be blond and they’re gonna be together.”
Although doctors know how Fall lost her face memory, they can’t do anything to bring it back, Snyderman noted.
“No cure,” she said. “What she has now, she has for the rest of her life.”
Despite the dramatic changes in her life since the stroke, Fall is still able to focus on what she has retained.
“I don’t know my kids, but I get to pick them up every day from school and they hold my hand and they are excited and they wrap their arms around me and they tell me, ‘thank you,’” she told Snyderman. “What more do I need? I mean, I find so much strength from the simple gifts I get to experience every day.”