Face blindness and mysteries
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So, today’s article is a bit more personal than most. I’ve been sick the last few days and haven’t posted much, so to make up for it, and to warn you, today’s article is hella long and not for everybody. But, I do hope it will be useful. I will of course include some cool science and tie it all back to religion. I hope you enjoy
If you’re looking for a short and to-the-point description of what face blindness is, try this link instead.
As some of you know, I have something called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re in the majority, and I hope that after reading this article, you’ll have a better understanding of people like me.
Face blindness is, in some ways, similar to color blindness. Color blindness is more perhaps accurately called color vision deficiency – an inability or decreased ability to perceive differences in colors. There are many excellent websites about color blindness and I don’t intend to reinvent the wheel, so I’ll just recommend this one if you’re interested. The point is that being colorblind does not mean you can only see in black & white (monochrome), nor does it mean that you can’t see colors at all, or even that you can’t see certain colors at all. Some people are affected less than others, for example, and colorblindness is more-or-less independent from visual acuity (whether you need glasses or not). Colorblind people are not stupid; they are not disabled (unless their job depends foundationally on their ability to perceive differences in colors, e.g. jewelry graders), and it’s not a matter of “trying.” They are simply physically unable to do it.
There are different types of color blindness, but let’s take one kind, protanomaly, as an example. Protanomoly is also called “red-weakness.” If a picture’s worth 1,000 words, this example by Paul Martin can probably do a better job than I can:
In the image on the left, someone with normal vision sees violet or purplish berries. In the image on the right, we see what someone with protanomaly would see. Since these people have a deficient or in- ability to see red wavelengths specifically, and because purple is a combination of blue light and red light, anything purple just appears to them as blue. An object that a person with normal vision would process as strictly red – say, the maple leaf on the Canadian flag – would appear as the commensurate shade of grey to someone with protanomaly. This type of colorblindness affects about 1% of males (colorblindness is more common all around in men than women).
It’s surprisingly common for people to live their lives just fine without ever realizing they are colorblind at all. Different saturations of red simply appear to be different shades of grey, and so they CAN tell the difference between light and dark red, etc. But from their perspective, the same shades of red vs grey are indistinguishable. Since they have never been able to see through someone else’s eyes (unless they’ve had an eye transplant), and since this is (almost always) due to a congenital birth defect, they just never know the difference and don’t realize those colors even exist. Unless someone else realizes it and points it out, they may never even notice they’re not seeing the same thing as everyone else. They more or less have to take other people’s word for it. We’ll come back to the significance of this in a moment.
So, what’s face blindness, then?
Face blindness is pretty much the same idea, except that instead of certain colors looking grey, people’s faces all look the same. And by all the same, unlike with colorblindness, I mean blurry, or perhaps more accurately, nondescript. If you want to imagine what it’s like, and you wear eyeglasses, this is actually pretty easy to simulate. Try going to a dinner party or skeptic’s meeting or some other gathering where you know mostly everyone there, and just take off your glasses. Depending on how bad your uncorrected vision is, you may not even be able to tell your significant other apart from a complete stranger until s/he says something out loud, and then you would be identifying his voice, not his face.
Face blindness is like that, except only with faces, and only with “whole” faces. If I focus on one part of your face, I can see it just fine. I can see your eyes, and your hair, and your nose, and your chin, if I look directly at them. But when I take a figurative step back and try to look at your “whole” face, it just doesn’t register very well.
You would not believe the social consequences that come along with a diminished ability to recognize faces. It is extremely common for faceblind people to lose friends, job opportunities, love interests, etc because other people don’t understand why the faceblind person is so “arrogant.”
For example, say you (reader) and I know each other – say we are Facebook friends, perhaps we have had two or three extended conversations after SASHA meetings, say we’ve even been out to dinner together with a group of friends or something. Now say you and I pass each other in a semi-crowded hallway one day – say, there are 8 people present, including the two of us. Our eyes meet briefly, and I look away and keep walking as if I don’t know you – because as far as I know, you are a stranger. You think, “What an ass! He didn’t even say hello!” You never talk to me again, and I have no idea why. And since I have no idea who you are, or even that I did anything wrong, I can’t apologize, either.
If there is one thing I hope you take from this article, here it is:
I ran across this picture on a blog article someone had written about her own face blindness, and even though I am sitting alone in this room while writing, I said, “YES! THANK YOU!!” aloud when I found it. This image so fittingly communicates what I wish people understood about being faceblind. The website author, Anni Taylor, has a pretty mild case of it. There are some people who literally are unable to recognize themselves in the mirror and freak out, thinking someone else is in the room, if they catch a mirror image of themselves unexpectedly. Like me, Anni’s case is mild enough, and her coping mechanisms sophisticated enough, that she did not realize she had face blindness until she was an adult (poking through some of her other articles, she seems to be in her 30s and just found out she has face blindness a year ago).
Because there is a spectrum of severity, it’s not uncommon for people to be unaware that they qualify as having it, if it’s not bad enough to interfere too terribly with their lives. I would say in my case, I’m about in the middle. I can say this with some confidence because several years ago, I participated in a study on face blindness through the Prosopagnosia Research Group at Harvard University (www.faceblind.org is their research site), which took about 25 hours over 6 weeks. I learned a lot from the study – mainly, that this is more common than I realized (it’s estimated that 2.5% to 10% of the population qualifies as having at least mild cases of it), and that though I have it much worse than I thought I did, I don’t have it NEARLY as bad as some people.
The main thing that struck me is to what extent my methods of identifying other people are abnormal, compared to how non-faceblind people identify each other. What also has struck me is how common my methods of identifying other people are among other faceblind people. As I understand it, the way that normal people identify each other is the same way that I identify my left hand as belonging to me: It is more-or-less effortless, instantaneous, and you rarely second-guess yourself, unless you are extremely drunk. You “just know” that you know someone. You can see someone from across a room, even someone you’re not expecting to see, and know that this person is someone you know. I’m not talking about remembering how you know them or what their name is – everyone is forgetful about those things from time to time. I mean the actual flicker of recognition when you see them and think, “Oh, you!” is thoughtless: As soon as you lay eyes on their face, your brain tells you that it’s someone you’ve met before.
This is drastically different than the way it works for me. For me, it’s more like being a detective who has to crack the case quickly, because there’s a bomb that’s about to go off or something. Every second counts, and especially in a crowd, I have less than a second to decide if I know you or not before you will feel insulted if I fail to acknowledge you as a non-stranger.
Why don’t I just treat everyone I make eye contact with as though we know each other, to be on the safe side, you ask? Tell you what: Why don’t you go to the mall for an hour, try that out, and let me know how it goes! If I smiled a big smile, waved, and said “Hi!” to literally every person I made eye contact with, I would probably look like a total nut, in addition to spending fairly all of my time saying hi to people. Being overly nice to strangers “just in case” you know them already actually makes the problem worse, and exponentially so. The reason is that if you do this, you will end up making a lot of acquaintances, whom you will be expected to remember the next time you see, as well (remember having met them before, not their names, I mean). No, the only practical solution for a faceblind person like me is to figure out, as quickly as possible, whether I need to treat a person as someone I am expected to already know, and stall while I figure out who they are, or if it is acceptable to treat them as a stranger and carry on with my day.
There is a complicated but precise way to do this; it’s something that I figured out when I was very young, out of necessity. I’ve had many years of practice doing it, so I’m pretty quick about it, but the method hasn’t changed. I was in my early 20s when I learned that most people do not do this. Basically, my top priority when encountering someone in public is deciding if you are a stranger or if you are someone I am supposed to know already. The timer starts once we make eye contact, and I have roughly ½ to ¾ of a second before they will start feeling insulted if I get it wrong. This applies anywhere there are random people (malls, restaurants, campus, etc) where I might run into someone I know.
The decision tree looks like this:
So, once I’ve established that you’re not a stranger, I can start trying to figure out who you actually are. The main thing for me here is TIME. The longer I can stall, the better my chances of figuring it out. This is a double-edged sword, though, because the longer I drag out our interaction to try to get more clues about who you are, the more insulted you will be if I don’t “remember” chatting with you later, if I fail to identify you correctly.
Sometimes I can skip the first flowchart entirely, if I already know that we’re not strangers. For example, at SASHA meetings, I know that (mostly) everyone there is someone I have met before, and even for new people, I want to meet them and I greet them warmly, so worrying about avoiding eye contact, etc does not apply. Or, if I am meeting a group of people at a restaurant (e.g. when I attend Columbia Atheist meetings, which usually have about 20-30 people), it’s just a matter of figuring out who is who.
The “Not a stranger, but who?” mental flowchart looks like this:
Oh hey, if you think going through these steps in your head literally hundreds of times a day must be mentally exhausting, you’re right!
This is why I always go to the same restaurant (if you’ve hung out with me personally, you know which one it is) and always go to the same bar/hangout (ditto): It drastically narrows down the number of people I risk running into unexpectedly. It’s why I almost never go to malls or walk around campus without pretending I’m texting. It’s why I LOVE it when I remember to bring nametags to SASHA meetings. It’s why I like picking people up in my car when we hang out, instead of meeting them there. (By the way, the worst possible nightmare for a faceblind person is being asked to meet somewhere crowded, and you getting there before they do). Some people with prosopagnosia develop very serious anxiety problems, social withdrawal, and even become total recluses to avoid having to deal with it. I adore people; I love my friends and there is pretty much nothing I enjoy about life more than the company of people I care about, so I am very fortunate that the worst of it, for me, is the mental juggling of who’s-who and the occasional pissed-off/gone forever friend.
One of the reasons I like to travel so much (not counting perhaps a dozen day-trips to other cities, I went on 4 extended roadtrips last year) is that when I’m in a new city, I’m under no pressure to recognize ANYONE. I can treat everyone as a stranger and there are no social consequences, as far as risking lost friends. Let me clarify that this doesn’t mean I am mean to people — quite the contrary. I smile at everyone; I chat with shop-owners and locals, and I enjoy making new friends. If you know me in person, you know that I really try as hard as I can to be a sweet guy. When I say I can treat everyone as a stranger, I mean that I don’t have to hide from them, because oh, you might be someone I know, waiting to spurn me if I fail your unintentional pop-quiz. Don’t get me wrong: I do not blame people who have gotten pissed at me for “ignoring” them, and I completely understand that none of my friends actually desires to do this to me. I want to make it clear that I am not upset about the friends I have lost through misunderstandings about this, unfortunate as it is. Like the picture says above, “I am not ignoring you on purpose.”
Now, as frustrating as this is, I do recognize that it could be a lot worse. Some people who are more severely affected than I am are unable to tell if others are even making eye contact with them in the first place – the entire face simply does not register. For me, I can see your eyes if I focus my attention on them, but your face does not “click” as familiar. I do not understand and have not experienced the sensation of someone seeming familiar and recognizing someone effortlessly and instantly. I can do it if I’m expecting to see you and you’re wearing clothes I know are yours and you have a hairstyle I know is yours, etc. But as long as I can remember, identification of other people I know has always been a conscious inference on my part. And like any inference, because it is based on available evidence, I could find out that I’m very wrong as the conversation progresses.
What’s it like to be faceblind? Let me give you some examples. Once I was supposed to meet my then-girlfriend at a car dealership – there was a big Humane Society fundraiser, and several hundred people were gathered outside the building waiting for it to start (the dealership was raffling off a car). I texted my girlfriend and asked her where she was waiting, and she told me she was right inside the side door of the showroom. I went to the side door–it was a big glass door– but didn’t see her, so I thought I should check inside. There was a woman in the way of the door, so I asked (politely) for her to move so I could get in. She said, “Very funny.”
On another occasion, I was taking a Latin class at Mizzou with about 20 other students. I always try to get to know at least one person the first week, and exchange email addresses if possible, so that we can share notes if either of us is sick or has to miss a day. I generally wait until the second or third class to do this, so I can feel out who takes quality notes and who doesn’t. So, on the first day, I met a really cool woman, another student, and we had a nice chat. Later in the day, I had an English class, and met another student, who seemed really nice as well. At the end of the third Latin class, I asked my new friend about exchanging emails for note-sharing purposes. She was happy to and we did. Later in the day, I had my third English class, and asked my other new friend about exchanging emails for note-sharing purposes. Unlike the girl in my Latin class, she was visibly perturbed, and I quickly said, “You don’t have to if you don’t want to; it’s just something I do in every class. I can get someone else.” She said, “No, it’s not that. I already have your email.” We’d been chatting all week, in both classes, without me realizing that these two friends were actually the same person. That is not the only time that has happened, by the way.
Face blindness is usually congenital, although it can also develop later in life through brain injury or trauma (lesions, cancer, stroke, or other diseases that damage brain tissue, etc). Interestingly, there is a whole part of the brain, called the fusiform face area (hereafter FFA), whose only function seems to be processing visual input of faces specifically. It seems that recognizing faces is so important to our evolutionary history that humans developed a bigger and more complex version of this section. The FFA is a subsection of the fusiform gyrus, which itself is part of the temporal lobe in Brodmann Area 37.
Because the area affected is so very specialized, people who are faceblind can do things you might not expect, despite our difficulties with faces. For example, most of us have zero trouble distinguishing between, for example, photographs of very similar rocks, or types of cars, or telling pets apart, or identifying, for example, my laptop from my brother’s identical make & model laptop (well, to be fair, mine does have a huge sticker that says “ATHEIST” all across the front!). But faces, they just do not register. This has some interesting consequences: I sometimes have trouble watching television shows because it’s annoying trying to keep the characters straight. I like the show How I Met Your Mother, as one example, but I often have trouble telling apart Ted and Marshall when everyone is seated at their table at the bar – I have no trouble when they’re standing, because Marshall towers over Ted, and I have no trouble with Barney, because he has blonde hair. I sometimes confuse Robin and Lily, although Lily’s hair is longer and redder, so I’m usually okay, especially if there is dialogue and I can use their voices to help tell them apart, etc.
So, I promised I would bring this back ’round to religion. Remember when I said colorblind people, who have never experienced the color red, more or less just have to take other people’s word for it that “red” actually does exist?
The reason I bring this up is that I’ve, more than once, heard this argument used as “proof” of supernatural claims. I have heard people say things along the lines of, “Some people can feel the Holy Spirit/Allah/the Tao/etc, and some people can’t. Just because YOU can’t feel it doesn’t mean WE’RE imagining it. Isn’t it possible that we just have some sort of 6th sense, which allows us to perceive this, that you lack?”
My response is this: Yes, it’s possible. But here’s how I know you’re making it up, even though I don’t necessarily think you’re doing it with a conscious intent to deceive: If I were colorblind, I could take a rose and show it to someone and say, “I’m colorblind. Can you tell me, what color is this rose?” and that person will say, “It’s a red rose.” Then I could take that same rose and grab another random person and say, “Hey, I’m colorblind. What color is this?” And that person will say, “It’s red.” And I could bug yet another random person and say, “Hey, can you tell me what color this rose is?” And that person will also say, “Dumbass; it’s red.” Then I’d say, “Oh, sorry; I forgot to mention I’m colorblind.” Then Person #3 would say, “Oh, I’m sorry for calling you a dumbass. Still red, though.” You get the picture.
I could do this 100 times and get at least 95 people to give me the exact same answer with complete agreement. (The other 5 would be the same people who say that the Earth is bigger than the Sun, or colorblind themselves).
The way I know the religion analogy flunks is that if I ask 100 random people what the word “god” even means, it would be unprecedented, to my knowledge, if they could all agree just on that, let alone which god, how many, whether s/he/it/they require baptism, or virgin sacrifices, or meditation, or suicide via cyanide-spiked Flavor Aid . I have heard, with a straight face, religious people tell me that “everyone has their own interpretation of who God is.” You know what it means when everyone has their own interpretation? It means no one has any frickin’ clue. God is a life force? God is energy? God is love? God is justice? God is an old Caucasian man with a white flowing beard and an outreached hand? When I was really little, I used to think God looked like one of the Emperor’s Royal Guards from Return of the Jedi:
The fact is, when no one can give you a straight answer, that tells you that nobody has a straight answer. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Lawrence Krauss said, “Scientists love mysteries.” The problem with religion is that it insists it has the answers when, in reality, it doesn’t. I’m not saying science always does, but at least science is working on it, and at least science is consistent, and at least science only trusts it’s conclusions insofar as they are supposed by the available evidence, and at least science has the self-doubt necessary to refrain from taking offense when it is subjected to critical inquiry. This is how progress is made.
I hope today’s post has been useful for you. Until next time!
For a more-thorough and more-personal treatment of today’s subject matter, try this free online e-book by a man with severe face blindness named Bill Choisser.
And finally, to you non-faceblind folks, here are some ways you can make things easier on faceblind people like me!
- When you see us in public, just help us out with your name!
- That’s it! Really! There is nothing wrong with our memories; we just can’t recognize faces!
- If you know someone is faceblind, and you’re with a group of people, kindly help us out by quietly telling us who everyone is
- If we see you in public unexpectedly, and we ignore you, just remember: We’re not ignoring you on purpose - you’re our friends and we love you; our brains just don’t process faces right.
Until next time!
(573) 424-0420 cell/text
Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!
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