Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Let’s Face It

I have been thinking about writing a blog about the degree to which humans are drawn to faces. Wanderin’ Weeta’s recent blog nudged me to get going on my writing. She identified this tendency as pareidolia, the tendency to see in something vague a recognizable object. This tendency is about seeing something random, and making sense of it by thinking it something familiar. It is not limited to faces, but faces are what people frequently see when they try to make sense of randomness.

We humans are fascinated with faces. We see them everywhere, even where they aren’t. Recall, for example, the
grilled cheese Virgin Mary. Or the images of the Virgin Mary on water-stains on the sides of buildings. Or the scores of potatoes that look like. . .well, you name it, there’s a potato for it!

This propensity is not surprising. Humans are hard-wired to recognize faces. This phenomenon has been tested in infants who are shown body images in random patterns. When the pattern is made to resemble the arrangement of facial features, the infants respond enthusiastically.

The importance of an individual’s face was at the center of medical news about a year ago when the woman in France became
the first recipient of a face transplant. Significant portions of her face were mauled by her dog resulting in catastrophic injury that left her barely function much less be seen in public. When doctors decided to give her a face transplant, news agencies around the world lit up with non-stop communications. One of the obvious concerns was who would she look like: herself? Or the donor? Of course, the answer that she would have a hybrid face, combining elements of the donor and of herself as face appearance is dictated, in part, by underlying bone structure. The ethical debate goes on today, not because the medical advance is controversial, but because our faces are a kind of signature that people expect not to change much.

But of course, our faces do change. I remember attending my 25th college class reunion. A man came up to me, all enthusiastic, and said—“Do you remember me?” Of course, he expected that I did. I had to say—“n-o-o-o-o, I don’t.” So, he said—“Jim, I’m Jim.” My reaction was (silent, of course)—“oh, no, you’re not Jim. I remember what Jim looked like, and you are not him.” Naturally, I didn’t say that out loud. But I kept thinking, that isn’t Jim. But it was. He just didn’t look like Jim. Truthfully, all through the rest of our class meeting at that reunion, I kept sneaking glances at him to see if I could see Jim somewhere in his face!

All of us carry a mental image of dear ones we have not seen for a long time. My mother died more than 15 years ago, but even without looking at a photo, I can summon her face to my mind’s eye instantly. Some faces stay with us forever.

And sometimes they leave us utterly. One of the most fascinating books I ever read was
Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. Sacks is a neurologist who treats severe brain maladies, and this book is a compilation of essays about some of his difficult cases. In this instance, the title essay talks about a man whose brain injury affected that part of the brain where face recognition occurs. The man had lost his ability to recognize a face as a face. So, when he went to leave the doctor’s office, he reached for his wife’s face, thinking it his hat on the coat tree in the waiting room. What a stunning malady. Sacks explains why we see faces and can’t summon the names to go with them. Where the brain “stores” faces is separate from where it stores the names. I think of it as a double filing system that tries quickly to correlate a name and a face. Some of us have slower filing systems than others.

So, let’s face it, we are drawn to, fascinated by, mesmerized by faces—of our loved ones, of long lost classmates, or total strangers with astounding medical conditions, of. . .what’s-his-name, and of ourselves. Think of the mystery of the human face the next time you look in the mirror.


Body Soul Spirit said...

I have never heard of this book but will have to go to the library today to get it. I have seen patients who can no longer recognize their own image in a mirror. I do treasure the memories of faces I have loved.

Mary said...

So interesting. It's the face we remember - not always the name. I'm forever seeing a face that reminds me of someone else and sometimes it's hard to remember who that someone else was. I never forget a face. But I forget plenty of other things, though.

I've heard that you can have a hard time bringing the face of someone you loved dearly back into focus. Like the faces of past lovers, etc.

Did I make any sense? Probably not... it's a fuzzy day.

LauraO said...

I really enjoyed this post, and now I'll have to find the book. Very interesting.