August 17th, 2009



Do you always remember a face? Even if you say you never remember names, I bet you remember faces. We have such an amazing ability to scan incredible amounts of faces and register them as known or unknown in the blink of a synapse.

I read an interesting blog entry today by the artist James Gurney, written some time ago, that talked about this and it got me thinking. You get off a plane and as you come out into the arrivals hall, you are already scanning for the person who is meeting you. Your glance skims over dozens of people and you barely have to focus on each individual set of features to instantly categorize them as strangers or familiar. You can pick a single face out of a crowd, how amazing is that?!

When you consider how very alike we all are, we humans: 2 eyes, 2 ears, a nose, a mouth, the feat grows in proportion. Sure, our skin color may be different or the arch of our eyebrows or the slant of our cheekbones, and our hair styles may change from one day to the next (heck, mine may change from one MINUTE to the next!) but we have a fundamental ability to differentiate and recognize instantly whether a face we see is one we know or not. We're always scanning faces: on the street, in the restaurant, as we walk in the park and ride the bus to work. Heck, we're scanning the ones we see online, on the big screen, on TV: faces are everywhere and we recognize at once whether they belong to someone we know in some way.

Think about how many faces you know: your family, your extended family, your colleagues and ex-colleagues, your classmates from several different schools or grades. Your fellow team members, your fellow club members, your neighbors, your children's classmates and THEIR parents, people in your village or your building, people you share public transportation with every day. Now add to that the faces of celebrities, famous people both living and dead (you'd recognize Albert Einstein anywhere, wouldn't you?): athletes, entertainers, politicians, pundits, talk show hosts, authors, artists, world leaders, activists; the list goes on and on. How many people would it take you seconds to file under A for acquaintance? The answer is probably much, much larger than you think.

I have over 300 friends on Facebook and that's a TINY fraction of the faces of people I would recognize anywhere. Though I admit, if I saw them unexpectedly or out of context, it might take me a minute to register, and if the person was a child or a young adult the last time I saw them and years have passed in the meantime, it might take me even longer (and it might not work at all) but still: incredible!

This mental rolodex we constantly flip through each time we pass or meet someone: do I know you? Yes or no, it's instantaneous. And we change our own behavior instantaneously as well in that split second of mental face-matching: we greet those we know and ignore those we don't. Our body language changes to reflect our recognition: a smile for those we recognize and like; a grimace for those we recognize and dislike (perhaps). We don't even realize we're doing it! It's unconscious visual perception at its finest.

Brains are neat-o!

Coveting: this AWESOME sweater

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