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Journalist Sadie Dingfelder discusses her inability to recognize faces

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(NEW YORK) — Author Sadie Dingfelder discusses her experiences with face blindness in her new book, “Do I Know You? A Faceblind Reporter’s Journey into the Science of Sight, Memory, and Imagination.”

From a young age, Dingfelder has been aware of her struggle with remembering people and faces. However, it took her decades to realize that her experience was not the norm.

She didn’t realize this until one day when she mistook her husband for a random man in the grocery store who had a similar build as her spouse.

A recent study found that only 3.08% of Americans meet the criteria for face blindness, or prosopagnosia. This condition affects close to 10 million Americans.

In her latest book, Dingfelder delves into her condition and unveils the incredible neural diversity of humans. ABC News sat down with Dingfelder to discuss her book in more detail.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Since childhood, science journalist Sadie Dingfelder has known that she isn’t good at remembering people or faces, but for decades she failed to notice that most people function otherwise. In fact, a recent study found that only 3.08% of Americans meet the criteria for face blindness. That number is close to 10 million Americans.

In her newest book, “Do I Know You?: A Faceblind Reporter’s Journey into the Science of Sight, Memory, and Imagination”, Sadie Dingfelder explores her condition and reveals the remarkable neural diversity of humans. Sadie, thank you so much for joining us.

DINGFELDER: Thank you for having me.

ABC NEWS LIVE: All right. So how did you realize that you have face blindness?

DINGFELDER: Well, let me tell you. I was in a grocery store and I was following my husband around. He was. And all of a sudden, he went rogue. And he started filling up our grocery cart with all this junk food. And I, I, you know, had to stop him, obviously. So I plucked a jar of generic peanut butter out of the cart, and I said, ‘since when do you buy generic?’

And Steve looked completely horrified, and it took me a second, but he looked horrified because he was not Steve. He was not my husband. He was a random Steve-shaped stranger. And, you know, and on the way home, I just was thinking, ‘this is not the kind of mistake that neurotypical people make.’

ABC NEWS LIVE: You said that he looked horrified. So you were able to see certain emotions in the face? But not, just give us a sense if you can kind of describe what kind of images you might see.

DINGFELDER: Well, it’s really interesting because face recognition is controlled by a totally different part of your brain than emotion, recognizing emotion or gaze direction or even telling genders. So, I’m normal at all those things. My problem is I just can’t remember faces.

ABC NEWS LIVE: And so when did you connect the dots that this was somehow related to the brain function?

DINGFELDER: Well, so ironically, I am a science writer, and I specialize in neuroscience and psychology.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Convenient.

DINGFELDER: Right! So I knew, like, how to do the research, and I got myself into a study. So I pitched it as a story and I thought, oh, this is a fascinating disorder that I probably don’t have. But I had it, turns out.

ABC NEWS LIVE: And so not only do you have face blindness, but you also have something called stereo blindness. Explain what that is.

DINGFELDER: Yeah. This is. My world is very flat. I can’t catch a ball or a frisbee, and I stumble a lot. It’s because my brain — I only look out of one eye at a time. And in most people’s brains, combine the images from their two eyes into a single, you know, three-dimensional image. And my brain doesn’t doesn’t do it.

ABC NEWS LIVE: So you’ve really kind of taken this deep dive into your own brain. But in the same time, what have you learned just about neuroscience and how other people’s brains work?

DINGFELDER: Yeah, that’s been the huge revelation for me, is that, you know, your father, your best friend, your spouse. They could all be living in a world that like, if you could beam into their minds, you you would find the world to be completely unrecognizable. I had no idea that other people could visualize. I thought that people were speaking in metaphors.

You know, when you’re in yoga class and they’re like, shine your sternum forward, like, I didn’t realize people could actually visualize like, rays of light coming out of their sternum.

ABC NEWS LIVE: So if I were to say, visualize a meadow, a very calm scene, you’re not able to do that?

DINGFELDER: That. No, I can just think I can think about a calm scene.

ABC NEWS LIVE: But you wouldn’t be able to picture it?

DINGFELDER: Right.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Your story is really vulnerable. You really allow your inner thoughts, emotions, experiences. You kind of put it all out there for everyone else. What have you learned along this whole journey?

DINGFELDER: Oh, gosh. I have learned that there is just a wild amount of sort of hidden neurodiversity in the world. And so even people who seem completely, you know, like normal and like they’re fitting in, they might have, you know, they might have ADHD or autism or some of the rare things that I seem to have, and you wouldn’t have any idea.

And they often don’t have any idea either, because they have nothing to compare their experience to. And even cooler is how science, scientists are beginning to study this. You know, they they are peeking into our brains in lots of clever ways and discovering that this is not just a problem with describing things. We really do have very different inner lives from one another.

ABC NEWS LIVE: So fascinating. I think a lot of people are going to be really intrigued by this, Sadie. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. You can now purchase “Do I Know You? A Faceblind Reporter’s Journey into the Science of Sight, Memory, and Imagination,” wherever books are sold.

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