Widgets Magazine

Confronting face blindness

During a polite conversation in Stern dining hall, Sceth Ramlagan ’13 casually asked for his neighbor’s name. To his mild surprise, he had already asked him before–nine different times. While some people struggle to remember names, Ramlagan can hardly recognize faces.


Born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, Ramlagan suffers from prosopagnosia, a disorder more commonly known as face blindness. The disorder is an impairment of the ability to identify and remember faces. According to a German study from the American Journal of Medical Genetics in 2006, it is estimated that one in 50 people suffer from at least a mild form of prosopagnosia.


Additionally, Ramlagan has been diagnosed with autism. The combination of autism and prosopagnosia has created a unique set of circumstances for him to cope with throughout his life, forcing him to teach himself the basic social cues most people take for granted. Ramlagan said he learned how to socialize using books, including Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”


“Many people don’t necessarily detect that I have my high-functioning autism just off the bat, but I do get remarks that I am very strange,” Ramlagan said.


The sense of being an outsider has not deterred him from interacting with others. He hugs dormmates and friends when they approach him and occasionally signs his emails with “Huggles, Scethy Poo.” While part of his gregariousness may be due to the fact that he does not notice social boundaries, Ramlagan often purposefully supersedes these boundaries as an intentional act of friendship.


“I smile a lot and I’m nice,” Ramlagan said. “I’m not defensive. I ask people about themselves. I try to paint things in terms of other people’s interests as opposed to my own. I use inclusive language like ‘we.’ It may be important to recognize that, for me, there is no difference between genuinely wanting to do these things and just performing them. I am as sincere as I act.”


Although he can recognize the shape of a face and other objects, Ramlagan cannot recognize a face’s distinct features. To compensate, he instead memorizes others’ visual cues, such as mannerisms, voice and even style of dress.


“One of the things that having prosopagnosia develops is a sense of knowing how other people act physically,” Ramlagan said. “I can tell when someone’s style of dress has changed, and if I recognize you by your style of dress and not your face, which is often easier to learn, then I may simply not recognize you when you change what you’re wearing.”


Ramlagan credits his social and communication skills to his upbringing. As a child, Ramlagan learned from his mother, who painstakingly taught him the fundamentals of social interaction.


“When I was small, my mom beat the practice of looking people in the eye into me,” Ramlagan said. “Eye gaze is not necessarily something that comes naturally to an autistic person. It was a habit that was enforced with corporal punishment. So I do look people in the eye out of very entrenched habit.”


(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

In some ways, Ramlagan is grateful for his family and community back home. However, the environment he grew up in was not conducive to his academic interests in mathematics. In addition to his autism and face blindness, Ramlagan had to overcome the hardships associated with being a low-income student.


“My academic drive is hardly motivated or a consequence of the people I grew up around or the family I was in,” Ramlagan said. “It would have been probably discouraged given my upbringing and socioeconomic class.”


“I grew up in a particularly anti-intellectual milieu in a small village,” he added. “I liked books much more than I liked people. I only decided to start talking to people when I was 15.”


Ramlagan’s passion for math came out of his love for learning and reading books, something he continues to do at Stanford. He hopes to finish his major in mathematics and possibly minor in music.


Ramlagan cited a quote by mathematician Dean Schlicter as a description of his love for math: “Go down deep enough into anything and you will find mathematics.”


“That is what fuels my attraction to mathematics,” Ramlagan said. “I spent most of my time on [math] for a lot of years, and I’m just doing it to enjoy myself. Math is one of those few things you can do with just paper and pen, or often just nothing at all.”


Though face blindness and autism play formative roles in his life, these conditions do not define Ramlagan. In fact, he explained, he wouldn’t have it any other way.


“I wouldn’t say I’m just an autistic person,” Ramlagan said. “But in the metrics that I have come to value, I would say my life would be worse [without it]. I’m glad to have it. I’ve never felt a need to be like other people.”


Over time, Ramlagan has come to appreciate his autism and face blindness as learning experiences. He uses his struggles to inform his empathy toward others, especially those with socially debilitating disorders.


“It may have played a critical role in making me what I am, but I do not romanticize it,” Ramlagan said. “I don’t idolize it. I don’t think of it as something to which I should be faithful.”

  • For anyone interested, I’m the subject. In general, autism overrules sociology.