As a boy growing up in Northern Virginia, Steve Royster was confronted with a small but persistent mystery — a mystery that presented itself every time he used the phone.
"Everyone always knew when I was calling just by the sound of my voice," Royster says, "while I had no earthly idea who was on the phone when they called."
Royster couldn't understand why his friends and family had this semi-miraculous ability to instantly discern who was speaking. It was befuddling until finally, Royster hit upon the only possible explanation.
"I clearly had such a distinctive voice that everyone could recognize me the second I spoke on the phone."
In fact, Royster has phonagnosia — or voice blindness — a very rare and very strange disorder. Like everyone else, phonagnosics can tell from the sound of your voice if you're male or female, old or young, sarcastic, upset, happy.
They just have no blooming idea who you are.
"It's not that every voice sounds the same to me," Royster explains, "it's just that hearing someone's voice doesn't bring that person to mind."
According to phonagnosia researcher Diana Sidtis, the part of the brain that allows people to distinguish things like age, gender and emotional content in a voice is different from the part of the brain that makes sense of whether or not the voice they're hearing has "personal relevance." That's the part of the brain that's able to relate to a voice and determine that it's actually familiar.
In phonagnosia, this part of the brain is damaged. This is why Royster never knows who's calling him, even when the voice on the end of the line is his own mother.
"I'm often at a loss and have to fake it," Royster says about his phone calls with his mom. "Just continue to say, 'Well, that's nice,' until [she] eventually hits on something about the house or one of my brothers, and that will clue me in that this strange woman who has called me is, in fact, the one that gave birth to me."
While for some people phonagnosia might be a real issue, Royster says that for him it falls into the category of minor annoyance. In fact, Royster didn't even know he had the problem until he was 27 and started sharing a small office with a co-worker.
Apparently, one of his bosses would frequently call him up and start barking orders without ever identifying himself, while Royster — who had no idea who it was — just sat there flummoxed.
After listening to Royster's end of the conversation week after week, Royster's office mate asked him why he always seemed to be so confused. " 'You recognize his voice, don't you?' And I said, 'No! How could I?' "
It took his office mate several days to convince him that voice recognition was something that actually existed — that other people could usually tell who was calling by their voice.
But probably the worst moment caused by his phonagnosia happened when Royster was a little older.
"Someone called me on the phone, and I was trying to have what I thought was flirtatious conversation with the woman I was then married to," Royster says.
There was just one small problem.
"It was the wrong woman."
Since that time, Royster has been careful to insist that people identify themselves upfront. And with the popularization of caller ID, all of this has become much less of an issue. Whoever invented caller ID, Royster says, was a great, great person.