Some thoughts about Faces

One thing that interests me – and that I’ve been thinking about writing on for a couple of weeks now – is faces: how we recognize them, how we think of them, and how they affect our interaction with the world. Over the past few years I’ve realized I see the world through a ‘resemblometer’: an inbuilt thing whereby I see resemblance in everyone, and I think of new people I meet in terms of who they remind me of.

Is it weird that I see this kind of thing when I look at a baby? Maybe it is.

To some degree, I think this is normal – I read an interesting article not long ago that explained pattern recognition forms the basis of facial ID software. So that’s good. I’m at least like a computer. But the extent to which I do this ‘hey! they look like x,y or z!’ can be pretty extreme – just ask baby Andrew Lloyd Webber here (who I swear is not made up for comedy. I genuinely am aware of a baby that looks just like Andrew Lloyd Webber).

Life through the resemblometer – babies are celebrities and strangers are friends.

Baby Andrew – or Bandrew, as we shall call him – is the reason my wife no longer wants me to look at her mothers group pictures on facebook:  apparently it’s impolite to tell new mums their baby looks – for example – ‘just like middle aged foreign secretary William Hague’. These ‘baby lookalike’ comments amuse her – obviously (one reason I married her, apart from her beauty, was her ruthlessly harsh sense of humour). But I think they make it hard for her to keep a straight face at her coffee mornings once I have lodged them in her brain. I know they’re wrong, and they may not be normal but I see them all the time – baby celebrities, baby politicians, baby sportsmen and women. Basically, any baby I see will either resemble a celebrity to me or, if I can’t make a match, will default to the natural state of a baby: which is resembling Winston Churchill (or Orson Welles. right?)

As for adults, it’s the same: Two weeks ago I went on a course through my work, something where I had to sit in a room among 20-30 strangers and get to know them/work with them in the space of 2 days. Drowning the first day, I struggled to remember who anyone was – coffee breaks riddled with crippling social awkwardness, as I realised we’d all spent the morning together and all had name plates at our desks but I still had NO IDEA who anyone was. Then the resemblometer kicked in, and by lunchtime it was fine, random people becoming manageable look-a-likes: Indian Jay, skin-headed Czech Republic Steve, heavily pregnant Argentine Mel and longer-haired, slightly older Chinese Charlotte. Since then I’ve been on my holidays and listened to Philippino Yukiko-crossed-with-Reiko-Aylesworth-from-24 sing in a live jazz band, had my dinner served by young Thai Dr Spock, and… you can see what I’m saying here. It happens a lot. So what is wrong with me? Am I just really really weird?

Maybe I’m face blind?

Doing some googling, I stumbled onto an interesting site about ‘face blindness’. Apparently some on the spectrum of autism/aspergers disorders (ASD) – the vast majority as it happens – struggle in some way with face recognition: a neurological difficulty recognizing faces that makes social interaction hard, and that goes by the name ‘prosopagnosia’. Prosopagnosia can be genetic, or can be caused  by illness or injury to the brain, and can apparently be suffered to different degrees and with differing levels of severity. It results in people mistaking one person for another if they have similar distinctive features, or in having trouble recognizing casual acquaintances for example, and it’s apparently something that underpins the social difficulties ASD sufferers face.

One mechanism used to offset this difficulty is apparently a tendency to “fixate on certain elements of the face” or use memorized features like hairstyle or glasses as ‘landmarks’ for recognition, and this jived with my limited understanding as formed – I’m afraid nearly solely – by pop culture: the movie ‘Adam’ for example, or the character Abed in [ridiculously awesome] US TV comedy ‘Community’. Apparently one response of the ASD brain is to use patterns and ‘place markers’ to compensate or fill in the blanks. So does this explain what I’m doing? Am I turning these babies and waiters and singers and colleagues into other people because underneath it all, I just have no idea what they look like?

Or maybe this is the way we all work. And I just never realized it before.

 I don’t know if I’m the only person who has a resemblometer but my wife, when asked, told me she does something similar. For her it’s more of holistic – more of a ‘vibe resemblance’ where people remind her of others due to their banter, or the way they dress or the way they behave. Some of you may have the same way of looking at faces or people in general. I don’t know, but the more I thought about it the more it occurred to me – maybe this is normal? Maybe we all do this to some degree without realizing it?

As it happens, a quick scan through the pages on Wikipedia say there is a suggestion your brain ‘maps out’ a face it looks at, creates a ‘structural model’ of it and then compares it to other faces in memory. This process has been looked at by scientists in huge detail and they also – again, thanks Wikipedia – note some differences in the way men and women recognize faces: which might explain why my wife and I do the same thing but think we do it a tiny bit differently. Either way, I think it’s hugely interesting – this idea that we’re constantly mapping out people, and stretching their features onto a frame we’ve created, a frame that is more about OUR brain and its workings than perhaps what they actually look like…

More than just faces – you’re actually doing it all the time. With everything.

Once you accept that you do this with faces – fit what you see onto a frame of your own – consider this, again courtesy of the Wikipedia entry on ‘face recognition’:  not only does your fusiform gyrus (the bit of your brain used for face recognition) do its mapping and modeling and comparing when you look at a face… neuroscientists have shown it’s involved when you’re looking at cars, or birds or made up new shapes (called greebles, apparently. who said neuroscientists don’t have a sense of humour).  Basically it applies the same process to most things.

So when I wrote at the start that you ‘don’t know what an apple is’ and that you’re really mistaking the apple you see with a “stitched together Frankensteins Apple” you made in your brain… I guess I was neurologically kind of right. You are. And as I said in that post, the problem with all of this is…

If you’re making things up, then you can’t trust yourself. Not totally.

Pareidolia. Apophenia. New words for the day. Keep them in mind. The first is the neurological phenomenon of “a vague or random stimulus being perceived as significant”. The second is the tendency of the brain to “see patterns in randomness”. Both have been studied at length, and there is more to say about them than I can fit in this blog. But they’re real things. And they confirm a lot of what I’ve been writing about for the past couple of months: your brain is involved in a constant process of applying order to randomness, and if it has to make things up as it goes along, or apply rules that don’t make sense it will happily do that just to get by.

We fit the world around us into templates, created by us, and tainted by all our baggage and weakness and ignorance and hang-ups, but we never admit that and we never acknowledge it, instead we tell ourselves that we know things. That we see them. That we understand them. When in fact, we don’t even know what an apple is. We don’t know what anything is.

So remember – you don’t know anything. Seriously. Nothing. 

This may be fine if it helps you remember the name of your milkman, or the difference between friends’ babies so you know which to compliment. It’s still pretty harmless when you’re seeing a face in the craters on Mars, or the face of Jesus on your slice of toast (though come on. Seriously?).

this is harmless. if silly.

Where it stops being fun is when you grind down your kids for not living up to your expectations of them; when your partner and you can’t get on, because you think they should see things your way; when your view of yourself doesn’t fit with your colleagues/boss/customers and your career is at stall speed; when you get all riled up on the sanctity of marriage/race relations/politics/religion and think your views are right. Even worse when you start thinking others are wrong…

this is where it becomes a little disturbing.

All of these things will at best make you a douche, and at worst maybe a bad human being. But we’re all guilty of them from time to time. And it comes from the point I made in ‘G that won’t leave’: question yourself, be aware how your brain works and try to stay open minded. Don’t believe things ’til you’ve really thought about why you believe them and why they make sense. As I said at the start:

Accept you know nothing and you’ll have a much happier life or (to sound all fancy about it) “darkness within darkness – the gateway to understanding”.


As a postscript – if you want to find out what kind of douchery results from foisting your opinions on others – check out this post here on ‘live, nerd, die, repeat’. It’s one of the funnier things I have read in a while, and if you like it, then I think you and I can be friends.

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4 Responses to Some thoughts about Faces

  1. Philip says:

    Well now I know why you call me Santa! Seriously though, I always remember faces, distinct and unique, at least in my own racial group (which i believe is normal). However, I have often beeen accused of mistaken identity, but the when you are being arrested, it is a pretty good first line of defence. Now I think about it perhaps my certainty has been responsible for miscarriages of justice. my trouble has been remembering the names that go with faces. So to compensate for this I have attached names to people as well as attributes. As an icebreaker on your course this would have been a good opener where everyone introduces themselves, as for example, Dangerous Dougsan, then introduces the next person. Anyway lets face up to it, you may have lost face by post this blog, with mothers and babies!

  2. Tom sugg says:

    Who do I remind you of Doug? The guy off the Davidoff ad right? Right?!

  3. Pingback: Stick with it, it’s character building. | Doug Tries to Write

  4. Pingback: It’s alive! Frankenstein vs the Plot Zombies | Doug Tries to Write

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