Face Blind!

Chapter 6

Ways To Recognize Others Without Using the Face


Two Kinds of Traits - General and Specific

Face blind people use a variety of traits to recognize people. These can be broken into two categories.

General traits can be applied to a large number of people. As with faces, these traits are non-verbal (cannot be described in words) and are processed in a chunk. Faces as used by most people are a general trait, but general traits one sees used by the face blind may be analysis of some other body area, listening to the sound of the voice, and the like.

Specific traits apply to one person and can usually be put into words. Examples are, "Jim is sitting in front of me here in algebra class because that is his seat," and "That is Gorbachev because he has a red spot on his head." A set of specific traits can be applied to a setting - a face blind person may, for example, come to know each person in his class at school by where that person sits.

Face blind people usually do not have any difficulty putting specific traits to use. The problem with specific traits is they are clumsy, and for a vast number of people around you or places they are found, you just can't come up with any specific trait that works. Thus, we have to primarily use general traits, and we will discuss them first.

It's a Multi-Faceted Construction Project!

As a child grows, he develops a system for recognizing people. He also must build his tribe, his "type", his core identity, and his personal identity. All of these projects are undertaken at about the same time, and the progress on each affects the others. They all feed off one another, as they grow.

The face blind child's system for recognizing people will probably include a number of general traits. None of these traits are very precise, so they must be used together in an attempt, albeit a poor one, to substitute for the loss of the face. The most critical thing to a face blind child is this: A very few traits, most likely the ones that give the clearest readings, may be selected for the most important job of all - to replace the face as the key to the "filing system". For the rest of one's life, these "key traits" about every person you know will become the way you think of them every time you remember them.

It's a Horse Race!

As a child, when one is building his system for recognizing people, the face normally comes in many lengths ahead of the next contender. With the face out of the contest, though, any number of contenders in the pack behind are likely to win the race. Which contender wins depends very much on:

People with good hearing often include the voices of people they know in their repertoire. This is a very strong-running horse, and face blind people who are able to reliably use this clue often have the mildest effects on their lives of us all. A significant percentage of face blind people, though, do not have much success with the voice, and they must fall back on other clues, which will usually be visual.

People have different visual abilities. A majority of face blind people, researchers now believe, have additional neurological vision deficits (though a researcher has done his darndest, without success, to find any in me, so we all don't). So even among ourselves we do often perceive the visual world differently. Some face blind see motion best, while others see things best that aren't moving. Some have great depth perception, while others see everything more flat. Some are very attuned to colors, while others can be color blind. Some are great at reading body language, facial emotions, or other "non-verbal" vibes coming out of others, while others pick up very little of such things. And when it comes to the face area, some of us see a lot less than we would otherwise, just because it is the face. Whichever of these visual abilities are one's best, those will most likely be the ones he applies.

There also appears to be a substantial sex difference in this vein. Makers of computer programs for children, such as games, have found that boys prefer those heavy on visual images and motion, while girls prefer those that concentrate on interpersonal relationships and emotions. These characteristics are probably rooted in our hunter (male) and gatherer (female) prehistoric genesis, so they are part of "human nature". These characteristics also carry over to one's sexuality as an adult, and as well probably contribute to concentrations of one sex over another in some professions (such as a predominance of males in engineering). So there is little wonder, that in searching for a strong-running horse, male and female face blind children often take different paths.

In Chapter 8A you will read how I recognize people. My system is very much based on visual clues, including motion. My system is very typically male, and few females would exhibit it. In Chapter 8B, another face blind man, Pertti, will discuss his system, one which some males and a high percentage of females use. It is based less on visual images and more on perceived personality clues - what Pertti calls "essences".

General traits that can become one's key traits fall into one of these three categories:

More must be said, in particular, about hair. It is reported far more than any other visual trait as important by face blind people. This is probably because of its reliability: it is readily observable on most people, and it is infrequently changed.

Long hair is particularly easy to recognize, but it is also particularly easy to change. Many face blind people say that if a person pulls long hair back into a pony tail, for example, that the person will appear to be someone else entirely, and they will not be recognized as a result.

Above we considered that people have differing abilities. Using me as an example, I sense motion and three dimensional depth very well, but body language and mannerisms very poorly. And it turns out one of my best ways to remember people is by calculating their body shape by how their clothing moves.

As is the case with faces (and discussed in the previous chapter), the technique of watching clothing move is completely impossible to reduce to words. There is no way to describe an individual that way in writing, any more than one can describe his face. And because it can't be described in words, for most of my life the fact that I was using that technique totally escaped me. It just was. Of course, for me, it really seems like it always has been. I have no words to describe it. Nobody else ever has ever offered any words to talk about their methods, either. So it was taken as something, almost as subconsciously as the process itself, that just is. I will talk more about how I use items on the body in Chapter 8A.

As stated above, some face blind people use "essences" - they rely on traits not so precise as visual objects, such as the common emotional states, personality traits, values espoused, etc., that a person may exhibit. This probably comes about because they are able to process this kind of data on a par with strictly visual images. As we've mentioned, you will read how one face blind man, Pertti, uses such things, in Chapter 8B.

I have not written a Chapter 8C on the third broad category of general traits used - voice recognition. Voice recognition happens automatically and very much like face recognition. So many people use it successfully in the dark and on the telephone that the way it functions is well known to most people, and it therefore really needs no discussion here.

Of course, people mix any and all of these techniques anytime they will work. But people do discover some things work best for them and develop their highest expertise in juggling those. I use clothing for example, but notice jeans very much, shirts somewhat, and shoes never at all.

People also differ in how they define the face. Remember the "traffic cop", who routes incoming images, from Chapter 3? Faces have boundaries, and if one can convince his traffic cop to define the face more narrowly, this leaves more data that will not be routed to the face processor but to general circuits instead, and there it can be utilized. One face blind man reports being able to process faces but only if seen in profile from the person's left side. While my definition of "face" is quite broad, to even include a bald or crew-cut head, one man reports crew cuts are better than long hair so long as he can see the scalp through the stubble! But without the stubble, he cannot process the scalp at all. And quite a few of us report that short beards, hats, or sunglasses make the face seem more visible, probably because they confuse the traffic cop to some degree. We vary though - in my case beards and long hair work but hats and sunglasses don't. I very much like the look of a one inch bandanna tying down my hair and running in a one-inch band across my forehead, however. I recently realized my face appears more visible to me when a bandanna is there, especially my eyes.

Some People Give Up

A totally blind person cannot create a visual recognition system to apply to other people. He will give up. And some face blind people take the same approach. Those who give up do not fail to recognize people visually altogether. But they never formulate a clear visual system to recognize others. Because of this, they tend not to build strong visual concepts for "tribe", "type", "core identity", and "personal identity" that other face blind people, and for that matter almost all other people, build. (We discussed these groups and drew diagrams for them in Chapter 4).

Those who do not give up create a system as best as they can. All the identity groups will be created, including a definite self-image. The groups created will be a bit different than most people's, because such face blind people see the humanity around them different than most people do. But they create these identities all the same, and they likely will feel just as strongly about the groups they formulate as most people do.

As a result of this phenomenon, face blind people are found in two opposing camps. In one camp, the occupants care little about what they themselves look like, and they care less about interpersonal relationships. In the other camp, feelings run at their usual levels, but in unusual ways, and the occupants will exhibit unique concepts of the various identity groups, including their concept of self. These people will be as picky about their appearance as most people are, and because they have uncommon identity concepts, the way in which that pickiness is exhibited will perhaps be different than most people expect, and it will thus at times be noticed.

This entire scenario is very analogous to the situation where some deafened people can hear some speech so they try to talk but it sounds unusual. And other deaf people give up, and don't speak at all.

Throughout this book, references to identity groups, including identity of self, will be made. One should keep in mind that a face blind person's response to these needs may be complete indifference (if one has "given up" on that task) or their response may be in the unique ways discussed in these pages (if one has not). Either way, the action of the face blind person with respect to the situation may be different than the usual.

And Those People Who Don't Give Up - Go To Work

To fashion a workable system to identify other people, the first thing most face blind children deal with is the fact that they need to deal with less people. The most usual response is to cull out a group that has the most distinguishable traits, and to concentrate on that group, using those traits. In discussions of this process among face blind people, we have found that most commonly, three things occur:

The two (most often it's two) traits chosen will become the person's primary ways of recognizing others. For the rest of that person's life, they will be used as the "key fields" in accessing their "filing system" on other people. In effect, they will replace the role played for most people by the human face. These traits occupy such an important place in the life of a face blind person that they have begged for a name. As we mentioned near the beginning of this chapter, we call them that person's "key traits".

Putting One's Key Traits To Work

As stated above, most of us found no one trait was good enough to identify someone with acceptable accuracy. So most of us adopted at least two. In my case, with "jeans" I coupled "lots of hair".

Considering two (or more) traits greatly improves the number of discrete possibilities a system can handle. Thus, among the face blind we see two traits used a lot, particularly for the key traits of the "filing system". Not infrequently, we see three or more traits used, though more often as supplementary information, or as a way to verify or check the other data.

Using two traits makes mathematical sense. If I can recognize a hundred kinds of jeans images and a hundred kinds of hair images, this gives me ten thousand possibilities. I'm just not good enough with either trait to get that many possibilities with it by itself. Most folks can only discern that many variations with the face.

So what we do is break people into groups based on our key traits. I may have dozens of "jeans" categories, which I symbolically put on an 'x' axis. On the 'y' axis will go a similar number of "hair" categories. I see someone and, once I've checked him out for those two things, I mentally go to my chart, and "Bingo!" I get a match. This process is, of course, completely indescribable in writing, and I can't replicate the mechanics of it in my conscious mind. But it happens for me just the same, as assuredly as indescribable face images work for others.

Circuits Are Limited

There is a limit to just how much group juggling or other recognizing one can do. Use of one's circuits to build our complex recognition systems limits their use for other purposes, which are less critical to social survival.

This may mean, for example, that we spend less time learning nuances about various groups or subgroups in the population. While juggling our own groups, we may be quite oblivious to others. We are off in our corner playing our own game. (We will see a similar parallel when we take a look at our sexuality later, because we also often divert circuits, normally devoted to that, to assist in the all-important recognition task described here.)

Let's next look at just what circuits we have to evaluate the appearance of a person with.

The Ways We Evaluate an Image of Someone

There are three ways people can visually analyze others that are specifically directed towards humans. To the extent that we can make use of these circuits, because they are designed to process human images, they will often be chosen, and they will give us the best results. Each of these three processes takes place in a different part of the brain. This means, of course, that some of these could be greatly impaired while the others are not impaired at all:

  1. Identification of the sex of someone. This happens in less than a second for me, and other face blind folk say the same. Face blind folks are just about as good at this task as are folks in the general population. (Note that this one item is a matter of specific, not general, recognition - you can put it into words - so it will not be widely useful as a scheme in recognizing people.)
  2. Special facial recognition. This is what we face blind lack. People who don't have face blindness can remember faces readily, and they can identify a face so remembered in less than a second.
  3. Evaluation of potential sexual partners. There is certain neurological circuitry that gets activated when a potential sexual partner is seen. Most people are not attracted to every specimen of a sex group, but rather to a subset of it. Age is the most common criteria imposed, but people generally have others, too. This comes out when someone uses the frequently-heard expression, "He's not my type."

There are other ways to recognize images too. They are not designed to operate just on human forms, so they may not work as well as the above. One that is especially important to face blind people, because it works on the people closest to us, is one I call "general pattern recognition":

If you put a blindfold on me, put me on a familiar street, and then remove the blindfold, I can tell you where I am without seeing the street signs, if I have seen the street many many times. If I have seen the street only a few times, though, I cannot tell you where I am. This "general pattern recognition" scheme is the one I apparently use to recognize people I have seen many times. I can't always do it in under a second, though. It may take several.

Specific Traits

Way up at the top of this chapter, we said there were two kinds of traits, specific and general. Specific traits are easily described in words and are more readily understood, so not a lot need be said about them, but they warrant some comments, which I'll provide in the form of these examples of specific traits that frequently work:


There are two categories of traits we use to recognize others. Specific traits can be easily put into words but are of limited usefulness because they don't differentiate large groups of people. General traits cannot be put into words yet they can differentiate larger groups. The face as used by most people is a general trait. General traits most often used by the face blind are items on the body, essences, and sound of the voice.

Now that we've seen the methods available for non-face recognition, we next look at how those non-face recognition methods are actually applied.

"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 - BACK
Chapter 6Ways To Recognize Others Without Using the Face - YOU ARE HERE
Chapter 7How Non-Face Recognition Methods Work in Practice - NEXT
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 January 1, 2002.