Face Blind!

Chapter 5

How Most People Recognize Others


Recognizing Tribe Members - The Face

Most people of course use the face to recognize others. The ability of non-face-blind people to recognize faces runs into the thousands, and is adequate to accommodate all tribe members, and others as well, that someone actually knows.

The face is also the key trait in one's "filing system". If a person's name is said, or something else brings that person to mind, the face image flashes by during the thought. Just as one can distinguish thousands of people by the face, one can also keep separated in his mind what all those people have said, done, etc., by using the unique face image as the key.

Most people will, for example, say it is a completely different thing to meet someone and have forgotten his name, than it is to meet someone and have forgotten his face. The former means you have just forgotten one item of data about the person, his name. Forgetting someone's face means to most people that you have forgotten everything, and indeed you feel you have never seen that person before. This alone illustrates the importance of the face in one's filing system that keeps track of other people.

Face Recognition is an Example of Non-Verbal Memory

It should also be said that the face cannot be described in words. If you do not believe this, imagine this scenario:

You are writing a friend to ask him to meet your neighbor on a busy street corner downtown. You do not know what your neighbor will be wearing, and your neighbor has a very ordinary haircut and no distinguishing facial hair. So you decide to describe your neighbor's face. You see your neighbor every day, so you are very acquainted with what his face looks like. But, I bet you can't put that in words! I dare you to try it. You'll come back very quickly, saying, "Describe his face in writing, well enough that a stranger could recognize him with certainty? No way!"

Because a face's image cannot be reduced to writing, or for that matter to speech, people seldom read or talk about facial images. And because of that, many people way underestimate the great importance facial images occupy in one's life. A literate society comes to believe that everything can be explained in words. What you've just seen is an example of how great a fallacy that is.

Another feature of normal face recognition is that faces are processed in whole chunks. No one looks at the nose, the eyes, and the mouth as separate items and then puts them together. A face image is taken in as a unit. (Some researchers have referred to this as "configural" or "holistic" processing.)

In fact, as our exploration of face blindness continues, we'll see that almost no file in any system anyone uses to recognize people, no matter how bizarre that system might be, can be reduced to writing. Of course, a system itself can be explained (e.g., "You recognize people by their faces, and I recognize them by their hair and jeans."). However, the description of an individual person's face, jeans, or whatever, cannot definitively be put into words, at all. We will also find that all alternative systems are, like the face, processed as whole chunks and not by parts.

Face Processing Is Done in the Subconscious

The human brain is formed in layers - the reptile brain is overlaid by the primitive primate brain, and so forth. The innermost layer is the oldest in evolution, with later layers added one after another. Important processing is done by the older layers, while our consciousness primarily resides in the newest outer layer. So one could say the inner layers act subconsciously.

Recognizing a face is a lot like painting it on a T-shirt wrapped around a soccer ball. To look at it, one sees the T-shirt, but the ink that soaks through the T-shirt and into the soccer ball is actually implementing the important process, and this cannot be seen. This process is the decoding of facial identity and facial emotions. It is done at the subconscious level and the answers are returned to the conscious, without the person knowing this occurred. No one, face blind or not, sees any wheels turning. He is totally unaware of the process and he just thinks he recognized the face by looking at the image. The only thing he is aware of is that he "got an answer" so he feels he knows the person.

If no answer appears in the conscious mind of a person looking at a face, he just thinks he did not recognize it. This is not an unusual experience at all, since it happens frequently any time one is in a crowded or unfamiliar place. Thus, no one feels this is unusual. This very usual feeling is precisely what a face blind person will sense if he does not recognize someone, so he is not aware of any deficit. (What he does not see in the place of the face is a black hole.)

If you ask a face blind person to describe the image of a face, he will describe it just like anyone else. He can see moles, eye color, etc. Indeed he sees "the T-shirt" just like everyone else does. But nothing is sinking in, so no identity or feelings are coming back out. A person in view may seem to be a stranger with little facial expression, though it might in reality be a next door neighbor who is quite angry. Most of the time most faces one encounters don't show much emotion, so the lack of emotion on a particular face is not taken as a deficit, any more than the lack of an identity match is taken as one.

Learning to read is a matter of training one's subconscious. Thus, another way to understand what happens when a face blind person looks at a face is to contemplate what happens when a European guy and a Chinese guy look at Chinese writing. Both using their conscious minds will see all the same wiggles and tick marks. However, the European guy will only see ground where a chicken walked, while the Chinese guy will see poetry!

Further on, we'll discuss how some things make a face more visible. In those discussions, the term "visible" will be referring to identity and feeling coming from it, not to the mere image. Later on we'll also discuss how images other than the face might sink into the subconscious of a face blind person and produce identity information and emotions instead of the face doing so. We may say such a person's face is more visible or that we can read him better, but the image we consciously see of him is the same as everyone else sees.

Thus, what most people use, and the face blind person lacks, is all in the subconscious. No one is aware of the process, or any failure in it should one occur. Faces to face blind people and to others all look the same.

The Voice, and Other Methods

Many people with good hearing can identify lots of people by their voices. As a backup system to the face, used after dark for eons, the voice is definitely second runner up. Then way back in the field of runners one finds such things as gait, usual clothing, usual hair style, body size, etc. As with the face, it is impossible to describe someone's voice with words well enough that someone else will thereby recognize the person.

Dealing with Non-Tribe Members

In the first paragraph of this chapter, we mentioned how tribe members are generally known to us, and how each member is remembered by giving him an individual file. Since one does not know a high percentage of non-tribe members, the usual way of dealing with them is not as individuals. Instead, we deal with them in large chunks, using stereotypes.

Stereotypes have been given a bad name. A "bad" stereotype here and there crops up, and the politically correct police are up in arms. But the reality is that we deal with most of our world in the form of stereotypes. Using stereotypes saves huge amounts of memory space. I can learn the fact that "bees sting", for example, and that enables me to learn about millions of them in one fell swoop.

Stereotypes can also be cascaded. If I see an angry Chinese schoolteacher, I can draw from my impressions of angry people, of Chinese people, and of schoolteachers, to give me a more precise feeling for what to expect of the person I am about to encounter.

Stereotypes can be overridden for individuals one knows. A stereotype that "dogs bite" can be reworked to say, "Dogs bite, but my neighbor's black Labrador is friendly!"

Stereotypes are of course the real source of the all important "first impressions" that we hear about. As someone gets to know you, though, their stereotypes fall by the wayside in favor of a real file, with real data about you, and that file will probably be anchored in their mind with the image of your face.

And finally, here are the reasons I am causing you to think about stereotypes now, when they only operate on the periphery of the social life of most people:

In fairness to face blind people, it should be said now that the face blind are far too busy juggling categories of people just to tell them apart. This leaves them less time, if anything, to indulge in the negative activity that often comes to mind when one thinks of the word "stereotype".

In Conclusion

Most people use faces to identify all the people they know. The capacity of their face system is adequate to the task for this group. Facial processing is non-verbal, is done in one chunk, and occurs in a specific part of the brain which functions in the subconscious. Stereotypes constitute a very memory-efficient way to deal with the millions of people that they do not know. This straightforward approach is what works for the non-face-blind. Now we will proceed to look at the far-more-complex ways that face blind people use, to tell others apart.

"Face Blind!" - Table of Contents

Chapter 1Introduction
Chapter 2Discovering Face Blindness
Chapter 3Physical Causes of Face Blindness
Chapter 4The Importance of Recognizing Others - BACK
Chapter 5How Most People Recognize Others - YOU ARE HERE
Chapter 6Ways To Recognize Others Without Using the Face - NEXT
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
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 May 17, 2002.