Face Blind!

Chapter 8A

How I Tell People Apart


How This Has All Worked out for Me

My hearing is too distorted to identify people's voices. The only way I can tell people apart is by how they look. I don't see mannerisms and body language much, but I do see motion well. So I have to count on someone's visual image, both as it appears when still, and as well how it appears when moving.

To recap what we saw in Chapter 6, as it applies to me, I really only recognize people with any skill that goes beyond my skill at recognizing shapes of objects, by using neural circuits designed for:

  • Identification of the sex of someone.
  • Evaluation of potential mating partners (people "my type").
  • General pattern recognition (people I've seen many many times).

Since the first item (a person's sex) doesn't narrow things down much, I can really only recognize people easily using the other two methods. This limits those I readily recognize to people I have seen many many times, and to people who are my type. This last method, recognizing people who are my type, is very klunky compared to the ability that most people have with the face, but to recognize people not very familiar to me, it is all I have.

I'll start with the question that non-face-blind people inevitably ask first.

What happens when you look at someone's face?

Oh, I see all the little things on it like moles, just like you do. What I'll sense differently from you is I'll likely feel the person is a stranger and harboring little facial emotion, even if this is not true. Once I look away, about all I can remember that will work for later matching is the shape of the hair lines around the face. If someone has a beard or a mustache it makes their face a lot easier to recognize, because there are more hair lines to look at.

Hair close to a man's face also enables me to see the nearby face to some extent. Short hair in the beard area and long wavy hair falling from the scalp down over the shoulders seem to be what works best. Beards and long hair over the shoulders seem to help me see a person's mouth better, and long hair higher up on the head helps with the eyes.

For me, I feel a very definite difference when my eyes drift upward across the jaw line. Below that line, what I see can evoke an emotion of attachment. Above it, I feel mainly emptiness, and the shape of hair lines is all I can remember easily. Two short-haired guys with beardless faces will look exactly alike. I can no more tell them apart than I can two German shepherds. The only exception, as I said above, is for people whom I've seen many many times.

This ability to recognize faces I've seen "many many times," which I've attributed to "general pattern recognition," does, by the way, kick in when I've seen someone many times. It is not a matter of time on the clock. I may spend all day with someone and not recognize him the next day. On the other hand, I may spend a lot less than eight hours total with someone, but scattered in bits and pieces over many days, and I will recognize him.

I believe this occurs because the mind can only learn so much about a person's image in a day, using the general pattern recognition method. I see an analogy to the way people are able to learn Morse code. I have taught it to many people over the years, and although it may only take a dozen or so hours to learn it, no one can do it in a day. A twenty-five minute session in the morning and another one at night is about all the mind can take. After that, students complain they are "saturated", and to push them after that is a waste of time.

If faces don't work well for identifying people you haven't seen many many times, how do you tell such people apart?

I use their hair and their clothing. But first of all, I want to repeat that these schemes, for people I don't know well, only seem to work on people who are my "type". The circuits just don't seem to be available for other people. It takes me several seconds to recognize someone, while it only takes a split second to ascertain whether they are my type. If I ascertain that they are not my type, the circuits make themselves very scarce, and I generally get no further.

Above the jaw line, about all I remember well about hair is its shape. Below that line, though, I can remember things about people much more easily, and hair is a great way to remember people because unlike their clothes they don't change their hair often. The only place, of course, that hair falls below the jaw line is over the shoulders beside the neck, so using hair to remember people only works on those who have longer hair. When I look at someone's face, the place my eyes generally rest is on the jaw, at the bottom of the cheek, usually on the person's left side.

I surmise I must have settled on that particular spot because it gives me a look at the hair patterns on the face and the hair beside the neck, too. Looking at someone square on - in the middle - would provide redundant information from both sides which are generally symmetrical, while losing detail in the hair by the neck, which would then be further away from the spot looked at. Since I read lips to some extent, this spot, quite close to the mouth, also enables me to understand what the person says if he speaks.

The one item of clothing I remember best is blue jeans. They come in a wide variety of styles with obvious stitching differences, particularly on the back pockets, and people tend to stuff the same things in their back pockets every day giving them the same shape and wear patterns. Although people change their clothes more often than they do their hair styles, they are more likely to wear the same style of jeans day in and day out, than they are shirts, for example, so jeans work well for identifying people who wear them regularly. If someone regularly wears pants other than jeans but similar to them in cut and material, I can remember that, too, but not as well as jeans.

What I seem to decode is how features on a man's jeans move in relation to his body. If his jeans are extremely tight there is no relative motion, and if they are extremely loose his body really cannot be seen. So I prefer jeans to be of an average fit. Also, if they are a color other than blue, they don't work as well, but they still work unless they are red, yellow, or orange. The cloth must be a plain cotton weave - prints such as checks, flowers, or camouflage utterly don't work at all. The pattern of the print runs interference with the image I am decoding.

Since designers readily go far more afield with jeans than plastic surgeons do with faces, one can perhaps gain insight into how all recognition systems work, including those using faces, by considering my experiences with jeans. The recent appearance of a wide variety of "cargo pants" has provided me with a variety of experiences. I've learned that their large rear pockets and to some extent just their having large pocket flaps in the rear area, work quite well, since they look quite jeans-like from the back, where my best recognition works. However, in addition to the pockets I also have to have a vertical seam with two stitch lines running vertically between the pockets. When reasonably sized pockets (or flaps) and the stitch lines are present, I am then able to get a "point" at which I can stare, and from that point I evaluate the whole image. This point tends to be between the vertical seam and the person's right pocket, though the precise point varies a bit from one image to the next. If I am unable to get this point, because the pants don't look "jeans-like" enough, then the image simply fails, and I get very little from it at all.

It is interesting to note that I get a similar reference point at which to concentrate my gaze, as discussed four paragraphs above, when viewing a face. I'd suggest the two are very much related. Both, interestingly, are on the same side, the right side, of the image being viewed. I will also add that the material these things are made of is important. Pants have to be made of cotton or something that looks like it, and faces have to be adorned with hair.

I have used hair and jeans to remember people since I was in early grade school. I consider those two items to be the "key traits" I use to remember people. I can use other things to tell people apart, but nothing works like hair and jeans! Just like the government has a file on everyone using their taxpayer identification numbers as a reference, I make my files on people using hair and jeans. I have an image of those two items in my head for everyone I know, and when I think of them, those two images come immediately to mind. Until I have such an image of someone, by the way, it is hard for me to remember much about him. It is as if I need to "open a file on him" to stuff information about him into, and I need hair and jeans information to open that file.

I don't believe this is something I could now change, by the way. Like I've said, I think there was a window of opportunity as a child to create an alternative to using the face, and the method I selected then is the one I am stuck with.

Motion is another aspect I remember somewhat easily. I realize this because sometimes I will not recognize someone until I see them walking. I remember how people walk, and in particular how their hair and jeans move when they walk. The way their shirt moves in relation to their shoulder blades is also a helpful way to recognize someone.

A lot of this is better seen from the back than from the front, and often I find it easier to identify someone from the back. Some people whom I would have great difficulty recognizing from the front, I will identify from the back right away. This means I am often looking over my shoulder after someone has walked by me, to see if I know him.

Have you met any other face blind people who use precisely what you use?

No, but some come awfully close. One man I know uses jeans and boots. Two things I never notice are eyeglasses and footwear, and here is another man using one of them. Another guy I've met uses beards, long hair and earrings, and come to think of it, another thing I never notice is earrings.

Looking at the three of us, it becomes quite apparent that we each have chosen to specialize in two attributes - our "key traits" - while paying little attention to other attributes at all. Of course this narrowsightedness is very close to what the non-face-blind in effect do, when they mostly ignore all but the face. So it is perhaps to be expected. The other two guys, by the way, are both middle aged men, as I am. And they both report that for them, too, they can trace their schemes all the way back to childhood.

Another thing the three of us have in common is that we are very picky about how our key traits appear on ourselves. For example, I pay much more attention to my jeans and hair than I do to anything else about my appearance, and my hair and jeans have to be "just so".

I can give you an instance that is quite illustrative of that. Several people have asked me why I selected the photograph you see at the beginning of each chapter in this book. Mostly, those asking have not been face blind people, and they inevitably have comments on the face in the picture. But to be honest, I picked that picture because I liked the way it portrays my hair and my jeans.

In line with this discussion, a face blind fellow I've met from Chicago should be mentioned. He grew up in a very ethnic-conscious city where lots of ethnic accents can be heard, and he is very skilled at ascertaining accents. During his childhood the people around him had a variety of different accents, and back then he selected as his two key traits long hair and dual accents.

What is a "dual accent" you might ask? It shows up in the speech of someone who was born in one place and then moved to another. There are lots of people, for example, with Polish accents in Chicago, but far less with, say, Polish and Southern. By seeking out people with dual accents, this face blind man can engage in that important step of culling down the group of humanity even considered, and he can go on to pinpoint quite precisely who someone is.

This man, it turned out, did not have a dual accent himself. Driven, as face blind people generally are, to themselves have their own key traits, he made a conscious effort to acquire a second accent, an Australian one! And, of course, he grew long hair.

Just how good is your system of recognizing people?

Honestly, it's very poor, but hey folks, it is by far the best I can do! So by default I have built my system of relating to other people around it, and because it is what ties me to humanity, it is one of the things I nevertheless hold most dear.

But let me give you an example of how poor my system is. Recently in getting in shape for a hiking trip, over a period of a week I walked a hundred miles around my city, San Francisco. It later occurred to me that in all those miles, I saw not one person whom I felt I had ever seen before.

When I mentioned this to friends who aren't face blind, they were dumbfounded. They all said there was a big difference for them between people whose names they actually know, and people whom they recognize as having simply seen before. They all said that, in walking around their own city, and even in cities nearby, they all the time saw people they knew they had seen before. And they couldn't imagine that I could walk a hundred miles around my own city, looking at thousands of people in the process and never recognizing a one.

The impact of this is, of course, that I feel no more connected to humanity walking around my own city than I would feel walking around a city I've never been to. The only way I feel more connected to my own city is with my familiarity with buildings, streets, hills, transit lines, and the like - but not with people.

Thus one could say a face blind guy many times feels loneliness at the same level most people feel when they are in a distant city. And it would be fair to say that as a result of this, one who is face blind may never feel as great an attachment for his home city as others do. So face blindness can make one wont to wander.

Is there any group you do well with?

Yes, longhaired men. It is with them that having two working key traits really pays off. Some longhaired men whom I've only met once or twice are nevertheless men I can recognize anywhere in town!

Sometimes one of my key traits will with a man give me a "maybe". If the man has the other trait, I can use it for confirmation and then feel one hundred percent sure of his identity. The nice thing about longhaired men is most dress casually and I can usually get good solid readings of both my key traits off of them. Thus I really do know who they are, and this is very comforting.

I recently joined an organization of longhaired men. It is the most fabulous group I've ever belonged to, because I can tell everyone apart. When I go to their events, I am like everybody else, and that is awesome.

You've said that it helps greatly in recognizing someone for him to be your type. Does this mean that you can only easily identify people who you think are "cute"?

No, this is not the case at all. I can just about as readily identify ugly people who are my type as I can cute ones. Really ugly bearded guys in jeans are much easier for me to recognize than someone less ugly who is not my type. Actually, this precise situation is what got me to suspecting that I was using this circuitry for something else besides deciding yes or no on potential partners.

Do you see more in some people's faces than in others'?

Yes, I do. In particular, if someone has lots of hair, I do. As a test of this, I have alternatively covered and uncovered my own hair in the mirror, using my hands. When my hair is absent, my face seems to lose all depth and expression. When my hair is made visible again, those things return. I do not know, of course, to what extent the things I see then are equivalent to what a person without face blindness would see, but I suspect a vast gap still exists. Nevertheless, the difference I feel between the two situations is substantial.

When I had a large pimple on my eyelid recently, it looked the same if hair fell over my face near it or not. But when the hair was there, it looked ugly. The presence of the hair activated my ability to get feeling from that feature of my face that was otherwise absent.

I do not know if the difference I see when hair is present is because I can relate the face's components to the nearby hair but not to each other, or whether the hair, as a key trait, has simply stirred more type circuits to jump in and do the evaluating. Whichever it is, I feel a very big difference, both in an ability to see facial features and feel facial emotions. People with lots of hair seem far more "human" to me as a result.

This was very well illustrated when a long-haired actor, whose acting I had liked very much, recently cut off his long hair. I could not stand to watch him after that. To me there was no emotion or expression in his work, and besides, often I could not tell who he was in the program. In short, due to the lack of emotion I felt in him after the haircut, I felt he had become a very bad actor.

Growing out my own hair had a profound effect on me. When my hair finally got long, for the first time in my life I could see my own emotions in the mirror. Up to this time I had always been very "poker faced". Once able to see my own emotions, I began to make some, and soon I was making lots of them. (By the way, I found the time one needs to spend in front of the mirror to create this situation and to maintain it is not great. Just the few minutes I have there while combing my hair, and other times I might see my reflection during the day, have proved to be sufficient.)

Once my hair had grown out, some of my friends reported that the difference in me was vast, and that at last I seemed "human". My friends were not the only ones to see a change. To me, I suddenly found people to be far more friendly and accessible than ever before.

Because of this, I know I will never cut my hair. The social benefits which accrue to me by having long hair are so vast that any advantages I might get by having my hair short would pale in comparison. Besides, I now realize those same benefits that accrue to me would make me far more valuable as a worker. If confronted with any requests that I have short hair, I now know I will request an accommodation.

Do the two things you use, jeans and hair, have any other effect on your perception?

Yes, in one way. Just as you feel bodies are made of skin, even though you know there are blood and bones underneath, I feel like bodies are made of hair and cotton, with skin, blood, and bones underneath. I extrapolate the materials I recognize people with, outward to cover the body just as you do with the material faces are made with, skin. This is not a matter of what I know, but what I subconsciously feel. The main effect of this is that I really do not care to be nude, nor do I care to be around people who are not fully clothed.

Does your system work as well for you in recognizing people you know well, as faces work for most people?

Not at all. I often don't recognize people who think I ought to. This even happens quite a bit to people who are my type, though it happens far more to those who aren't.

You have trouble even recognizing people you know on the street then?

Absolutely. Even if I know someone, I often won't recognize them because it takes me several seconds of looking at them to figure out who they are. When I meet someone on the street, I don't get to look at them long enough. In a second or two, they are gone. Also, to recognize someone, I need to look at them all over.

What do you mean by "look at them all over"?

Well, I look at the shape of their body, their jeans, and their hair. I look at how their hair and jeans move when they walk because motion is very easy for me to recognize. I notice how they move their limbs. For many people I find it easier to recognize them from the back than from the front. Anytime I meet someone, I always look at him from all angles to verify who he is.

Isn't it frustrating when you can't do that?

Very much so. On TV they often show nothing but the face, over and over. They cut back and forth between scenes, never holding on anyone long enough for me to get a useful look. I need to see the bodies of people that go along with the various faces from the back, but they never show anyone turning around. Instead they will cut from faces to bodies, and the lack of continuity keeps me from telling which bodies go with which faces. And I never get enough of someone's body in my view to make a unique enough picture of him. Until I do that, I can't follow that person in the plot. Even if the character is a longhaired man, the easiest of people for me to recognize, they often hold just a split second less on his image than I need. Since I presume they hold long enough for people who use faces, this tells me my recognition system is a bit slower than theirs.

Other places that I find frustrating are at tables where everyone is seated, and in very dark places such as bars. In both instances you can only see the face, and it's tough to make a complete picture of people. One solution to this is to seek out familiar people in those situations. Watch the same TV programs over and over, and eventually you see enough of the main characters to build an image. Have dinner with close friends, and you know what they look like already.

Surely this doesn't always work, though?

No. A social club we belong to had a carnival booth once, and a guy who I know quite well was sitting there when I arrived. He spoke to me like he knew me well, but I had no idea who he was. Finally he got up from his chair and I was able to see his jeans from the back. I immediately knew then who he was. I realized I had not recognized him because he had been wearing a hat which hid his very high hair line. Later when he took the hat off I recognized him easily.

Since your "type" includes only men, do you have more trouble with identifying women?

Very much so. I worked in a ten person office for two years and I could not recognize the secretary (female) if I saw her anywhere but in the office. In the job before that, they had about half a dozen women working there. I never was sure of the number, because I couldn't tell them apart, even in the office. There were about fifty men in the office and in time I got to where I could recognize all of them. I attribute this to the fact that the women were never able to stir at all the part of the brain that I have apparently hijacked to identify people with. It insists on only cranking away at people who are my type.

Can't you use hair and jeans to identify women?

Not really. Well, not in the special way they work for men. If hair is really outlandish on a woman I will remember it, but not particularly because it is hair. With women, the main way I remember them is by body shape - how tall and how fat they are. This is about the same way I would tell apart two trees. My more acute "human evaluating circuits" just aren't there.

I very quickly make a sex determination of people I meet (most face blind folks can do this normally, though some cannot), and also whether the person is my type. This happens for me at the "normal" speed of under one second, and if the person is a female, or a male not my type, the circuits immediately go off line. It takes me several seconds, say about eight, to identify someone. So if they are not my type, which is the case with all females, it is likely they will not be recognized at all.

Occasionally I'll see someone at a distance that I think is a longhaired male. I will begin to go to work trying to recognize him. As he approaches I will realize the person is female. At that moment, everything that was going into memory totally vanishes, just as if a bubble were popped. It is as if my memory says, "We don't deal with this data, erase file!" I am thereafter powerless to remember anything from the image at all. It is as if the earlier moments never existed.

Is Your World Mostly Men, Then?

Very much so. Immediate family members are about the only females in my life.

Before about age nine, I could recognize almost no one. At about that age, my "type" circuits began to come on line, and I was at the age where one wants to be busily building his identity groups. The two most distinguishing characteristics that I found in my contemporaries with my newly aroused "check out the males" circuitry, were their hair and their jeans. These were distinguishing because they were the two things that were easiest to tell apart and least likely to change, of the things on schoolyard males I could see. And that is how hair and jeans became my key traits.

Telling people apart that way, though, was not easy. It took lots of work, and I still ended up with a very small group of known people.

In Chapter 4, I talked about how we all build our identity groups. A bit ways down in that discussion we drew charts to show how people build their groups. This is how I built mine:

Bill's chart, with all circles on the male side.My "type" circuits were really not up to the task to build a complex system. It was all they could do to carve out a small part of humanity which I have some ease at recognizing.

As a male with a male-directed orientation, my type was carved out of the male side of the chart. When we get to Chapter 10 on sexuality, you'll see that the type group I carved out was pretty much delineated by who was distinctive in my two key traits - hair and jeans. So I carved a much smaller "type" group out than most people do. (Remember, the type group is represented by the blue circle.)

One's tribe normally goes way beyond one's type, and it normally includes people of both sexes. In my case, in an attempt to expand my tribal circle, I ran up against a wall. It was at the type boundary. So my tribe circle (the red one) takes in precisely the same small group as my type does. (In drawing them as tight together as they are, I hope you do see both of them.)

So yes, my life is very much a male world. And a world of long haired, bearded, casually dressed men, at that.

There were no such people in your grade school, so why those people now?

A great question! It is one I, of course, have had to ask of me myself. In fact this situation for the longest time obscured the deepseated origin of my identity in early childhood. But of course, just about everyone's social groups change since their formation at that age, otherwise we would all be interested in elementary school children.

My key traits started out as jeans and hair, and they remain jeans and hair, but there have been changes. The men I seek those traits in have grown older as I have. The jeans styles have changed from those of children to those of men. The hair trait has changed the most. It began as being based on hair on the arms and the longest hair found among my contemporaries. As I aged and styles changed, the importance of hair on the arms diminished, and the importance of hair on the head increased. As I grew into the age where facial hair was in evidence, categories of facial hair were incorporated into my hair trait.

Such changes as I just mentioned do not come quickly, though. They do not occur in response to overnight fads. Changes took years as a youth, and as one ages more, they take decades, to the small extent that they will change at all.

Wouldn't it have been a bit tough to build your world on one side of the sex line, had you been straight?

Yes, it would have. Men and women of course do not at all look alike. In building identification systems, the job ahead of you is twice as big if you are straight. Pertti, a straight man, will next tell how he tells people apart. Besides his being straight, other differences between him and me are that he sees lots of qualities in people that I miss altogether, and he uses those in addition to physical appearance. Though his system is quite a bit different from mine, you will still see similarities. Now let's look at how Pertti does it.

"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 - BACK
Chapter 8A...Bill: How I Tell People Apart - YOU ARE HERE
Chapter 8B...Pertti: Recognition System - The Essence Model - NEXT
Chapter 9Effect of Face Blindness on Emotions
Chapter 10Effect of Face Blindness on Sexuality
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.

Text of this chapter last revised January 1, 2002.