Home Episode Episode 01: Face Off

Episode 01: Face Off

February 2, 2016

Welcome to season two of Flash Forward! We kicked off this season with a pretty unlikely future: the entire world goes face blind. Listen here:

In the episode we discuss what causes face blindness — also known as prosopagnosia — and the tricks that people use to remember their friends. We also go through all the things that would be easier (spying, hiding) and harder (police lineups, cocktail parties) in a world where we were all faceblind.

Today, about two percent of the population has some form of face blindness, or prosopagnosia. Some people with prosopagnosia have a hard time with acquaintances, while others struggle to recognize their own family members, and sometimes even themselves. If after this you’re thinking “hm, I wonder if I’m face blind,” you can take an unofficial online test here.

To figure out what this world might be like, I called up Dr. Jason Barton, a neurologist at the University of British Columbia who treats and studies people with face blindness. He told me that face blindness can happen for a lot of reasons: some people are born with it, and others acquire the trouble after a stroke, infection, tumor, or other kind of brain injury. You’ll have to listen to the episode to learn how it happens to all of us at once.

I also talked to two people who are face blind, since they have the best sense for what this might be like for the rest of us. Lisa Huang, a science fiction writer, and Jaydeep Bardhan, a mechanical engineering professor at Northeastern University, told me all sorts of really interesting things about how they do, or don’t remember people. Movies and TV shows? Tough for people with face blindness, especially when all the actors look the same. 

Via captcrieff.tumblr.com

Via captcrieff.tumblr.com

We also talked about things like hair and makeup, how people might try to visually distinguish themselves when they can’t rely on their face to do it for them. And Barton suggested a whole other way to recognize people that has nothing to do with faces.

There’s a great Ted Chiang short story called “Liking What You See: A Documentary” about facial recognition. The story focuses not on face-blindness, but instead, the piece talks about a world in which people can elect to have their perception of beauty turned off. So nobody has an advantage for being prettier than anybody else. But according to Dr. Jason Barton, some people with prosopagnosia also struggle to tell things like age, sex, mood and even beauty of another face in front of them.

And in case you didn’t think this episode was dark enough, here’s another take on face blindness: a short film in which someone locks eyes with the perpetrator of a horrible crime, but can’t remember his face because he’s face blind.  

What do you think? How might we get around face blindness? Would we just give up? Would we all wear go-pros and google glasses around? Would name tags come back into style?


Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The (awesome) art for this episode is by Matt Lubchansky. The intro music is by Asura and the Outtro music is by Broke for Free. The music for your drive time radio host was The Zombie Dandies. The voice of your drive time radio host was Mike Pesca, who is also the host of the not-fictional daily Slate podcast The Gist. The voice of our trusty scientist was Bethany Brookshire, you can follow her on Twitter at @scicurious. And the voice of our lovely public radio reporter was Tamara Krinsky, you can find her at @tamarakrinsky

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at info@flashforwardpod.com. We love hearing your ideas! This week’s episode was suggested by Charlie Loyd. 

And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! We have a Patreon page, where you can donate to the show. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.

That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.

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marc February 8, 2016 at 5:13 am

Hey why no upload to Sound Cloud? I was subscribed to this on there, and it was really liked that I would get a notification on my phone when a new episode was out. I know you guys changed names and everything, but still???

Also I want to add, I think you sadly done a horrible transition to the new name 🙁
I was wondering when this episode/season would come out because its been forever. So I I had to go into hardcore investigation mode to find this site and learn about the name change. I think you should have made a short episode of an announcement on all the different medians of where the episodes were posted (Sound Cloud, iTunes, etc) about how and where to find the new episodes/season.

Rose February 8, 2016 at 2:11 pm

Hi Marc!
Sorry you’ve had a hard time finding us! But you’re here now! Welcome back!
We’ll be back on Soundcloud soon. We had so few people subscribed the way you do, compared to RSS (which is here, if you want it: http://rss.acast.com/flashforward) that it wasn’t our first priority. You can find constant updates also on FB: https://www.facebook.com/fashforwardpod/ and Twitter: https://twitter.com/ if you use either of those.
Thanks for listening and for doing all that detective work to join us again!
▹▹ Rose

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Jennifer February 9, 2016 at 9:15 pm

Haven’t listened to the podcast yet … came here via a link from nytimes … this topic is always very live for me as I am (I estimate) moderately face-blind. Takes me a realllllly long time to recognize people and if I don’t see them for a few months they’re strangers all over again the next time. So inconvenient, makes me look like I don’t care enough to remember you. It’s hard to explain and I don’t feel that ppl always believe me when I try.
Movies, right – who is that character?? Is that the same person that was sympathetic or hateful a moment ago (differently dressed now)? And if there are two males or females of similar ages and sizes, I will be lost for all or most of the film. Etc.
So of course I love the idea that everyone would have this condition – I wouldn’t be the oddball who sometimes knows who just greeted me by name but often does not. I don’t think I know people by their face no matter how well I know them and recognize them, and the people in this imaginary situation would learn to cope the same way.

Paul February 11, 2016 at 7:16 pm

Thank you for covering this topic. Some inaccuracies, but overall a good effort. I recommend https://www.faceblind.org/links/index.html for a better understanding. Fun fact: Oliver Sacks was severely face blind.

Episode 01: Face Off | Waller TOK | Scoop.it February 13, 2016 at 5:56 am

[…] Welcome to season two of Flash Forward! We kicked off this season with a pretty unlikely future: the entire world goes face blind. Listen here: In the episode we discuss…  […]

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