Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

on faceblindness and recognition

I think that most people recognize someone through their appearance, then they immediately call to mind everything they know about the person, and that this process is probably common and automatic enough that people don’t talk about it except when it has glitches – such as not recognizing them at all or confusing them with another. But with people with so-called faceblindness I suspect there’s a lot of variation in a number of ways. How do we recognize people at all – through which features? Do we recognize all of a person or only those aspects that are connected to the trigger feature? Is there a gradual recognition that has a patterned sequence?

As my contribution to the field, here’s some case notes on me.

  1. Taking an on-line faceblindness test I recognized only two of the twenty or so famous people, and one of those was by his iconic glasses (Ghandi).
  2. I’ve forgotten whether people who I care about a lot have moved or gotten married or divorced. I’m talking about people who really matter to me. It’s usually in cases where I felt I could have foreseen the change but can’t remember if it happened yet.
  3. Frequently I’ve forgotten whether people are alive or dead, mainly my grandparents and aunts and uncles, and others such as elders in quaker meeting. I’ve been in doubt because I knew they were of an age where dying would be unsurprising, and I had too slight of a personal connection with them to feel the loss personally. I just can’t remember if the death is in the past or future.
  4. At a school where I worked I heard some of the other teachers saying they had a heck of a time telling two of the students apart, and before hearing that I had not known they were related at all, but it turned out they were identical twins. I never confused them before because they didn’t feel alike, but then after knowing they were twins, it got harder to tell them apart; I started trying to tell them apart by sight more.
  5. In a large school I was apparently in an accelerated program, and I did not know that all of the kids in all of my classes were the same kids until I overheard someone talking about it. In experiences like this, I’ve sometimes been able to piece together a number of different fuzzy people that I’d seen for months or years repeatedly into the same person. One time I remember being very excited about realizing that two people I knew were the same person, and then over a couple hours realizing that a third and fourth “person” were also her, as she coalesced from unknowable into a singularity.

When people do things a wholly different way than the norm, it could be that some atypical part of the brain is doing the work, or that some extrasensitivity has arisen to cover for some other deficit, or just that the person’s capabilities are uneven compared to the norm – some high, some low – which is an autistic thing in general. In my case, being faceblind, I don’t use the “normal” data such as facial features, and hair and eye color, but I can still identify people often. In the case of the twins, I just knew what they felt like, so an aura comes into the room centered on a person, the aura makes me feel a certain way, and bingo, I know that’s ____. I’m writing this as a blank because the aura has no words; it isn’t the person’s name, it’s just their whole being. If I don’t think about it, it happens. If I’m self conscious, the ability goes away. As I get older and try to fit in more, it goes away more.

The aura may be timeless and maybe that’s why life and death changes don’t seem to affect my recognition and recall.

Something that came to my attention recently when someone approached me was the sequence of recognition. I could identify in this case a distinct set of steps, and my mind went something like this:

  • 1 second: There’s someone I know. I can feel her willingness to listen, her acceptance of me; she’s safe; she’s in my second circle.
  • 2 seconds: I recall her diagnosis and sorrows, the tension with her husband; her kids are not with her and why?
  • 5 seconds: OK, she’s looking at me as if something is not normal… maybe I haven’t seen her in a long time?
  • 10 seconds: Well I know she’s from Altoona Pennsylvania and has three daughters, and I remember the depth of the middle one.
  • 20 seconds: I think she moved either back to or away to Pennsylvania a long time ago.
  • 10 minutes: I think her name is Tineen.
  • only after looking because of being self conscious of the process: She has dark short hair.

In this sequence, I first recognize the feeling of being othered or not, and the connection through children. So when I say “aura” it’s relational, not something isolated to them, and not something I can see in pictures or video, but often requires them to project the aura onto me. The particular way that I’m less than or equal to them can be important, as is their safety level and their overall moral stance about their place in the universe. I believe I probably then expand to intuit their emotional state at the time and their life story’s emotional pattern. All these steps occur whether I’ve ever seen the person before or not.

In a few seconds I can usually bring up geographic memory and more cues about joys & sorrows. One of the memory points in my favor is geographic – I can remember fairly precise locations of objects and can use this to differentiate people by their origin.

It can take longer to remember her name, and then minutes to days can pass before I recall or memorize her basic appearance and past experiences. It seems interesting that common experiences that we had can be the last thing to come back to memory, or they can be forgotten completely. Facial features to not come “back”: I have to look to ascertain them each time.

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