Face Blind!

Chapter 9

Effect of Face Blindness on Emotions


Face Blindness Affects Emotions

It is common for face blind people to say their emotional life is different than that of most people. For some this difference is slight, but others have gone so far as to say they felt they were more "emotion blind" than face blind, and that their emotion blindness affected their life more than their face blindness.

To help in understanding why this occurs, we'll first look at how emotions work in most people, and then we'll consider how it may be different in face blind people.

A Look at Emotions

Emotions are how we feel - things like happiness, sadness, anger, and fear. We have feelings ourselves, and so do other people. We communicate those feelings to others. And some of our greatest joys come from feeling the emotions of others.

It is possible to have a neurological deficiency that prevents one from having normal emotions. Since the presence of one neurological problem such as face blindness sometimes indicates others are present, too, a face blind person having difficulties with emotions must not rule such a deficiency out. However, many face blind people do not have such, and thus, it is beyond the scope of this discussion to delve into details about that. I would feel remiss to not mention having such a deficiency as a possibility, though, that one with face blindness must consider.

A person with normal emotional capabilities can still have difficulties if he is unable to receive and send emotional information during his encounters with people. As we shall see, face blindness can interfere with one's reception of emotional information. And, much as a deaf man with an intact speech mechanism can't speak because he doesn't know what his words are supposed to sound like, a person who doesn't receive emotional information from others may not know how to send his emotional information to them. Since reception of emotions is at the root of the problems with emotions that the face blind person might have, let us look first at how most people, people without face blindness or any other impairment, receive emotional material from others.

How We Receive Emotion Information from Other People

When someone communicates how he feels, most of the time he will choose to do so with facial expressions or by tone of voice. Research has shown that when people can both see and hear each other, they will rely on facial expressions and tone of voice to communicate over ninety percent of their emotions. Less than ten percent of the time do they communicate their feelings by using words.

Knowing people's emotions is important for survival, just as knowing who people are, is important. Since the dawn of mankind down to this very day, if a man miscalculates someone's emotions, that can get him killed, so it is important to know the emotions of a nearby person immediately.

It is no wonder, then, that most people get another person's emotions from the face, which is the same spot they are looking at to ascertain identity. How convenient, that we can save time by getting both of these vital pieces of information by looking at precisely the same place! Well, let's not seriously believe this happened by chance. It is so important that we get both pieces of information quickly that mankind probably evolved that way.

People also get quite a bit of emotional information from the tone of voice. The sound of the voice is also used to ascertain someone's identity, particularly when the other person cannot be seen, such as when it is night, when he is not in view, or, in modern times, when he is on the telephone. Once again, we have a situation where the other person's emotion is being extracted from the same source as is his identity.

Change, or motion is an important ingredient in pulling emotion data out of the identity data. The cracking of a smile means that smiling is the emotion right then! A frozen smile, on the other hand, is not as significant, and can only be used to infer that a smile belongs somewhere in the recent past of the event unfolding.

So what we have are two sources of identifying someone - the visual image of their face and the sound of their voice, plus two sources of identifying their emotions - the change in, or motion of, the visual image of their face and the change in, or fluctuation of, the sound of their voice.

What all this means, of course, that the brain is primed to extract someone's emotions from the same place that we extract their identity, and in particular, the motion or change of those inputs is particularly sought out for emotional evaluation.

When we think of emotions that come from others, we think of our efforts to read their mental state. There is, though, one emotion that people cause you to feel merely by their presence. Because there is no word in English to describe it, I will call this emotion "I'm-here." (We do have a word for the absence of adequate doses of this emotion - "loneliness," but surprisingly, no word for the continuous stream of feelings one receives from another that forestalls it.) Like most of the emotions we receive from others, the I'm-here emotion comes directly from the neurological circuits that determine who a person is.

Emotions result from the action of a subconscious part of the brain upon what we sense around us. To feel genuine they have to feel spontaneous, automatic. This feeling arises because, as a matter created in the subconscious, they feel like they sprang forth spontaneously. What this means is that we must "follow our hearts" and pursue emotional satisfaction, even if our means of getting it is a bit unusual, because we really have no choice in the matter. The subconscious does what it wants.

Of course, we all apply conscious thought to our interpretation of others' emotions. If someone's facial and tone-of-voice information says one thing, but their words and deeds say another, we will take that into account. But to do that takes conscious thought, and it takes time. By the time we fashion our response, it may not fit into social discourse gracefully. The timing may be off, and our response may be just too late. Thinking about emotions really bogs us down. We do so much better when we take them immediately off the identity circuits without thought.

To summarize, each person's mind has established a way it recognizes people. For most people, that would be the image of the face, though they use the sound of the voice, too. Anytime a person is encountered, the mind makes it top priority to get that information about him at once and use it to determine both his identity and his emotional state. This happens very fast. A few seconds later, the mind gets around to processing other information that might also bear on the interpretation of emotional communications. At this time it may not be too late to use that information for all purposes, but it is too late to be socially graceful about doing it.

All this works great, of course, if your way of identifying people is the face, because that is where people put most of their emotional outgoing messages. If your way of identifying people is not the face, you can imagine that this might cause problems in these three areas:

Perceiving Emotions

Face blind people have learned to recognize people by using things other than the face. Since emotions are extracted along with recognition data, the face blind person will be subconsciously looking for emotions in a place where none are being sent. Interestingly, he may get some emotional feelings from there, but they are feelings he long ago learned to discount, because he has learned they are not related to what other people are intending to send. Nevertheless, such emotions are hard for him to ignore, and he can't ignore them completely, because they are the only source of his feeling he is celebrating human life.

To some extent a face blind person may have learned to seek emotions in the face, but he will not be as skilled at reading facial expressions as other people are. What little he does read from the face will come not automatically but as a result of conscious thought, because for the face blind person, facial emotions do not come from the place that he uses to recognize people. The slowness of such emotions to be processed can put the face blind person socially "out of synch."

The face blind person will have to rely on words a lot more than most people to figure out emotions. Since most people put less than ten percent of their emotions into words, this means that the face blind person will not only be slow to perceive emotions, but he will miss many altogether.

Close to half of emotions transmitted by most people are sent using the face, and about a third more are transmitted using the tone of their voice. Some face blind people have "central auditory processing disorder," a neurologically based form of hearing distortion. (I am one of those people.) With this condition we find it hard to extract emotions from the tone of someone's voice. For us, we miss even more emotions, and we count even more heavily on the words said.

Relying on words alone can cause misunderstandings. Some people become very accustomed to the fact that just about everyone does receive their emotions, and they will say one thing and in effect cancel it out or even hint they mean the opposite by accompanying their words with a emotion fashioned to do that. The face blind person may not pick up the emotions and will thus take this person at his words. When those words are later discovered to be untrue, the face blind person will justifiably consider the other person to have been undependable at best, or lying or vindictive at worst.

Of course, it is possible for people to send all of their emotions via their words alone. We do it when we are writing, all the time. But when someone can see or hear us, they choose to use the personal recognition channels rather than words because for them emotions can be sent that way with much less effort. And face blind people can miss out. Incidentally, one place that face blind people have found they fit very well is on the Internet. All identity and emotion information there is conveyed by words, a medium with which face blind people are not impaired.

At a very young age a person born with face blindness will learn that the emotions he feels automatically (from his identity-determination circuits) do not correspond with what people actually feel. He will learn to discount those emotions. They still come in, though, and they may affect his moods subconsciously, making him enjoy some encounters and not enjoy others, without knowing why. More than that, once in a while one of those emotions may come barreling through into the conscious mind.

If a person senses an emotion being sent to him, a very human thing to do is return it. If someone smiles at me, for example, I will smile back, though it may take me longer to do that than it would most people, because a smile comes from the face, and I am slow at interpreting facial emotions. This all happens because it is part of natural human communications to echo perceived emotions back to the sender. In reality, it's our way of saying, "I got your emotion message."

Interestingly, the images that I use to identify people (hair and jeans) sometimes will trigger an emotional response in me. When this happens the mechanism leading up to it is subconscious and very fast. I will unexpectedly find myself echoing an emotion that I know in reality the person never sent. Smiles are the most common emotions for me to receive in that way, but occasionally I get others. About once a month I'll get a hearty laugh, and of course in a knee-jerk fashion I return it. If someone asks about it (which seldom happens), I just say, "Oh, sorry, for a moment my mind was somewhere else."

Emotions taken from non-face areas may not be completely uncorrelated to those held by the person seen. One learns over time to relate emotions to body language. Such emotions can also be self-fulfilling prophesies to some extent - if I sense from the movement of a man's jeans and thus his gait that he is happy, I will smile at him and he will echo that back and may feel happy.

Although most emotions I get from my recognition circuits do not correspond to what people are sending, one emotion that comes from that source is very valid - the I'm-here emotion. Since that emotion comes from my recognition circuits - the place that emotions are "supposed" to come from - its flow is more swift, strong, effortless, and frequent than any other emotion. Only by looking at that one emotion can I imagine how much the feeling of other emotions affects the lives of other people.

Except for the I'm-here emotions and the occasional ones I just described, no emotions are received quickly, effortlessly, and instantly by me. This is no doubt because they don't come in from my recognition circuits. The result of this is that I must consciously think about emotions, and they come very slowly, and often out of synch with the social scene to which they belong.

Emotions may not be attenuated uniformly across the board by a face blind person. I get happy emotions better than unhappy ones, for example, and I get emotions off of hairy male faces better than off of others. Friends may not need to tell me they are happy, but if they are unhappy with me, they might have to. Women may have to tell me how they feel while I may pick this up myself from men.

Some face blind people will find difficulty in reading gestures, in addition to their difficulties in reading identity and emotions. I have, for example, found it impossible to read sign language, which involves a lot of facial expression. I abandoned efforts at learning sign language after taking the beginning class for the third time. I had taken the courses because with my distorted hearing I had hoped knowing it would help me find people I could connect with. But understanding sign language for me was not to be. I don't know if my trouble with sign language was related to my face blindness or not, but faces as well as hands do communicate the gestures. I doubt my sign language trouble was related to my distorted hearing since lots of people with my kind of hearing impairment use sign language.

I do know that my sign language problem was not related to a general problem with language. One can disprove any allegation of a general language disability by finding an unmuddled channel and using it to access the intellect. Like many face blind people, I can communicate by reading and writing just fine. That I have two college degrees is to me evidence enough of that. Of course, I completely got through college by reading. The only class I ever got a "D" in was one that had no textbook. My other grades were all better than that.

Sending Emotions

Though a person may have normal facilities for receiving, processing, and sending emotional data, if he does not see a rich variety of emotions on the channels he is able to receive, his ability to send emotions will be affected.

I have had the occasion to meet several totally blind people. All of them were very poker faced. Not seeing what emotions are supposed to look like when coming in, they never acquired a large repertoire of emotions to send out. Well, I've been told that my face is not as animated as most people's faces are. I suspect this is not because I physically can't make the expressions, but rather because I don't see them in others and thus don't know how to make them.

Time after time throughout my life, I have felt that people were not "taking me seriously." Now that I am aware of my distorted hearing and my face blindness, I now realize this was taking place because I have often not accompanied my words with corroborating expressions on my face or in my tone of voice. Without that corroboration, people who are accustomed to receiving emotional information to back up someone's words, react by not believing mine. People who do this will not react by saying they think you are lying. If they just would, I could easily confront that. What they will do instead is completely ignore you. Life can be very frustrating when time after time you are ignored. If one accepts that as the norm, he can in time become very isolated from others. It is probably more mentally healthy to resolve to "do something about it" instead, but sadly, there is often not much that can be done, and the frustration just grows.

Beyond facial, gestural, and tone of voice emotions there lies another level of emotional expression - violence. When people's emotions fail to communicate what they want, there is an urge to react, not by using words because they've already been used and they didn't work, but instead by escalating their emotional expression to the violent next level. Expression of emotion with violence is blatantly obvious, and the expression of such emotions, unlike the more sedate usual emotions, is easily read by a face blind person, and thus easily understood and easily transmitted if need be. If one cannot accept the isolation, or the indignation of being ignored, in desperation his thoughts may turn to violence as a last resort, though for most face blind people it seldom goes so far as to use force or take violent action. It is far more common to just seethe in the frustration and think of what one might do.

Face blind people may also find themselves on the receiving end of violence for the same reason. Non-impaired people may become frustrated when their emotional communications are what seems to them "ignored," and they may result to using force against the face blind person in desperation. This has happened to me more than once. If only these people knew what it was like to be ignored all the time! The frustration that triggered them was truly minuscule compared to what we put up with all the time. Reflecting upon these events makes one realize that the tolerance that face blind people have for others borders on remarkable.

Enjoying Emotions

One of our greatest pleasures as humans is to enjoy the flow of emotions coming from others. For many people, this is what they "live for." Emotions that you have to figure out are not nearly as enjoyable as those that come spontaneously from the circuits that recognize people. For the face blind person, it is possible that few emotions other than I'm-here will flow from that source, and this will definitely have an effect on what social circumstances he will find enjoyable.

At a social event, the face blind person may well enjoy just "being there" more than partaking much in any socialization going on. "Being there" makes the I'm-here emotion flow, while socializing requires invoking the less-fun need to figure out emotions. I'm-here is also stimulated by being noticed, and the face blind person may choose to limit his socialization to just the amount needed to feel "noticed."

The face blind person may well also enjoy activities where his personal recognition circuits get the greatest workout, because emotional feelings are a byproduct of their exercise. I recognize guys by their hair and jeans, for example, and for me no social encounter can compare to a day of hiking with long haired guys in jeans. On a day like that, I'll get a lot of exposure to the ways I identify people, and a lot of exposure to their movement, too, and as we've discussed, movement is rich in emotional content. Simply, such a day is one in which I will get a lot of I'm-here.

Some social situations for a face blind person will turn out to be very dull. Sitting around a table or in a dark bar, where I can only see people's faces, is for me emotionally very boring. To give you a sense of how boring, imagine how dull it would be for you to spend all day with people where you could only see their feet!

Another factor that enters into the enjoyment of social encounters is that while everyone has a face, some people may not have what the face blind person uses to recognize people. If someone is unable to stir the circuits that the face blind person uses to recognize people, that person will come off to the face blind person as emotionally boring.

The most devastating social situation for a face blind person to get into is to enter an employment situation that for him is emotionally lifeless. We spend many hours at our work, and to spend them without any emotional flow is like working among a bunch of machines. It is no fun. Far worse, the inevitable stress that comes with any job can overwhelm one when there are no enjoyable emotions to provide balance. To spend many hours daily in a place devoid of emotion goes beyond being not fun. To remain there is not mentally healthy.

So a face blind person will find it more of a challenge than most people to arrange for an emotionally-full life. Knowing why this is so may help one accept this situation to some degree, but as a human one still has emotional needs. To satisfy them, a face blind person may have to carefully select social settings, including his employment setting, so that those emotional needs are met. This selection process will perhaps reveal a requirement to be around certain types of people, or people who are doing certain things.


As is the task of recognizing people by the face, the task of deducing emotions from the face is performed less accurately by face blind people. In Chapter 7 we discussed how some face blind people deal with their inaccuracy in recognizing people by being conservative, while others liberally "recognize" strangers.

Well, it turns out that here one more parallel between recognizing people and recognizing emotions exists. Some face blind people when it comes to recognizing emotions are conservatives, recognizing few emotions. Others are liberals, "receiving" lots of emotions, quite a few of which may not really be there. These people may, in reacting to such emotions, have fears or other responses beyond what would normally be expected, while the conservatives may forge forward, oblivious for the most part to any disapprobations which might be thrown their way.

As with one's conservatism or liberalism with recognizing people, one's style of recognizing emotions does not seem to be a choice. And there is some speculation at this time that if one is conservative or liberal in one area, he will as well be that way in the other.

Other Facial Signals

In addition to emotions, people send other signals with the face. When people meet on the street, for example, they may communicate any of these messages by the face:

As with emotions, the face blind person may not pick up some or all of these communications, or be able to tell them apart. He may not even be aware that most people can communicate such nuances with the face. His skills may be limited to telling whether a person is looking at him or not, and whether the person is smiling or not.

With this level of ability the face blind person does not get the answer to the question, "Which of the communications in the above list is being sent?" In many cases, the failure to receive these communications and act on them, particularly if the result is to show someone is not recognized who should be, is considered a grave social offense.

And as we discussed with emotions, one unable to receive certain facial signals may be unable to make them, and the failure to send these signals may also be considered a grave social offense.

If You Can't Recognize Yourself, You Will Be Emotionally Impaired

This information has been added in 2008.

Recent research has shown that species whose members cannot recognize themselves in a mirror have little capacity to feel empathy for others. Furthermore, over the past ten years I have made myself recognizable to myself by growing lots of hair. I now realize, looking back, that my ability to feel emotions, perceive emotions in others, and send emotions to others was greatly impaired by my not being able to recognize myself.

One of the most asked questions I get is, "Can you recognize yourself in a mirror?" The frequency of this question shows that people feel that this is very important, and indeed it is. At a subconscious level where feelings such as empathy lie, an image of ourselves is the anchor upon which we tie all of our concepts of self. Empathy is a bridge that connects us to another, and both ends of that bridge must be attached to a unique and recognizable entity for traffic to flow. Consistency in our behavior towards others depends upon our seeing ourselves as being a person with certain characteristics, and to display those characteristics naturally, our subconscious has to tie them all to our self-image. When I feel emotions now, they spring forth from the image I have of myself, and emotions destined for me end up there. A few people have multiple personalities and of course most people have one. In my case, before I could recognize myself, to a large extent I had none.

A lot of people ask why I would need to recognize myself, assuming that since my problem is with recognizing others and since others can recognize me, there is no need to recognize myself. These are often people who have just asked me the "mirror" question and thought that to be an important question when they asked it. Indeed, though, the short answer to why I need to recognize myself would be to have them reread the answer in the previous paragraph to the "mirror" question. The longer, more detailed answer is given by my laying out what has occurred with me over the last ten years.

BillOver this time, I have let my hair grow out, and I have become accustomed to seeing myself with lots of hair. I can now recognize myself. It takes time, yes, years, consistently having a recognizable image, to train the subconscious to feel that one is indeed recognizable with it, but I have done it. One must take that much time, because feelings cannot be successfully faked. They literally must be grown within the subconscious, and this takes time. I can now say I genuinely feel that I am recognizable. What this has meant is:

  • The emotional connection I feel with others is several times greater than it was before.
  • People take me as genuine, and social interactions are far better than they were before.
  • I have always been a guy with strong values, but now they are instant and intuitive, where I had to think them through before.
  • I feel much more responsible for my actions than I did before.
  • I no longer confuse my emotions with those of others, so I am much more resistant to abuse than I was before.
I cannot imagine going back to having shorter hair. It would be like I was 90% dead. The advantages to having that 90% of my being intact far exceed any detriment I might face from discrimination. The hair enables me to communicate far better with others. Most people I meet now actually like me for the first time in my life! What a change that has been!

A hearing aid can detract from one's appearance in some people's eyes, but the vast advantages it gives in communicating with others far outweighs any detriment. My hair, I see the same way.

If you are face blind and you don't think you need to be able to recognize yourself, all I can say is, "If you haven't tried it, don't knock it." If you haven't tried consistently having a "look" that you can recognize, you really don't know. If you do try it, take note of the word "years" in the discussion above. This will be an investment in your future. You will be engaged in the endeavor for the long haul, but if your experience is like mine and that of others who have tried it, your life will be much richer for it.

You can't "go there", though, until you've figured out how you recognize people first. That is your starting point if you don't know that yet. I am not saying, "Grow hair." I am saying, "Go with whatever you already use." Hair is one thing commonly used by face blind people and it is what I have always used, but you may be using something else. You will need to work that into your "look".

In Conclusion

A major component of people's emotions comes in along with the means they use to identify people. For most people, who identify others by their face, this situation works very well. For the face blind person, who identifies people in other ways, this means that many emotions sent his way will routed off to a siding, while he picks up other emotions on another track. To compensate, the face blind person must do a lot more calculating to figure out people's emotions, something that for most people flows naturally. A lifetime of doing this may mean that the face blind person does not become adept at receiving emotions, and some emotions may not be picked up by him at all. This failure to receive emotions may impact his ability to send emotions, and his expressions may seem less "lifelike" than most people's do. Enjoying the emotions that flow from other people is a major part of enjoying life. A face blind person may discover that some social settings work poorly for him while others work well, and he will need to seek out the latter in selecting places to socialize and to work. Not being able to recognize yourself can greatly impair you ability feeling and communicating emotions, so making yourself recognizable in your own eyes can make major improvements in your emotional life.

We next look at how face blindness can affect one's sexuality.

"Face Blind!" - Table of Contents

Chapter 1Introduction
Chapter 2Discovering Face Blindness
Chapter 3Physical Causes of Face Blindness
Chapter 4The Importance of Recognizing Others
Chapter 5How Most People Recognize Others
Chapter 6Ways To Recognize Others Without Using the Face
Chapter 7How Non-Face Recognition Methods Work in Practice
Chapter 8A...Bill: How I Tell People Apart
Chapter 8B...Pertti: Recognition System - The Essence Model - BACK
Chapter 9Effect of Face Blindness on Emotions - YOU ARE HERE
Chapter 10Effect of Face Blindness on Sexuality - NEXT
Chapter 11Effect of Face Blindness on Your Social Groups
Chapter 12Understanding Why People Choose To Look Alike
Chapter 13Ways To Improve Our Lives


Appendix AHow To Find Medical Articles on Face Blindness
Appendix BGetting Diagnosed (Tested) for Face Blindness
Appendix CLinks to Other Face Blind People
Appendix DAuthor's Information Page

This document is copyrighted. For information, or to contact the author, go to Appendix D, the Author's Information Page.

Lasat significant revision to this chapter: April 29, 2008.
Last minor revision to this chapter: November 11, 2014.