CBS’s 60 Minutes ran a segment about face blindness last night, and I figured I’d share some thoughts about it.

If I could add captions to the movie, that would be fun, but I don’t know how to do that.  So I’ll try writing a running commentary according to the time index of the video.

Part 1:

0:10  It’s been a while since I watched this program.  Goodness, they are being dramatic, with correspondent Lesley Stahl giving her introduction from an endless black void with a creepy picture hovering behind her!

0:45  As you might expect, the report mostly focuses on some of the most extreme examples of face blindness, because… well, that’s more dramatic!  My own face blindness is not as severe as most of the examples they will talk about in this segment.  (Also, while face blindness is often a trait of autism/Asperger’s, many faceblind people are not autistic.)

I have never had trouble recognizing my close family members or myself in a mirror.  And I was able to recognize my high school classmates right away at our reunion. But I’ve spent years with those people where I saw them on a daily basis and spent time getting to know them.  I start to have trouble with people I only see from time to time.

1:20  This is something I’ve always wondered about 60 Minutes.  Do they make sure that the stopwatch is always at the right minute and second based on when the commercial breaks come, or do they fudge things a bit?  It looks like the watch is running about 20 seconds fast here, but I think that’s because they cut the “Tonight on 60 minutes…” part out of the video.  What?  Oh, face blindness. Sorry.

2:00  I have at least some facial recognition ability, because I can recognize most of these celebrities.  And the ones I have trouble with are possibly due to unfamiliarity with the celebrity rather than face blindness.  But this is easier than real life facial recognition, because 1) I already know it’s a celebrity, and 2) the faces don’t move or start to wonder why I’m staring at them.

2:22  This camera shot is a more accurate representation of the task in real life.  All those faces going by– how can I pick out the ones I’ve seen before?  Do other people’s brains really do that automatically?  If so, that’s amazing!

3:20  There’s no “Aha!” moment for me when the faces go from upside-down to rightside-up.  It’s just the same image flipped.  Most people don’t have to turn their heads to read words that are printed upside-down, do they?  It’s the same for me with faces– if I don’t know them upside-down, I won’t know them rightside-up.  But flipping the image seems to cause instant recognition for Lesley Stahl.

4:00  Those poor people… I feel terrible for me too.  (Just kidding.)  : )

4:45  When you don’t automatically recognize faces, you use context to help you keep track of people.  If I understand what Dr. Novotny is describing, she can become familiar with a person as her current patient, but when they step outside into a crowd of people, their context is completely changed.  Now they are just one of many people visiting the hospital.  She might remember that the patient was a young woman with medium brown hair, but now there might be three other people in the room who fit that description, and if she makes an assumption, it could be wrong.

5:08  This is a nightmare scenario for me.  I would have to ask for the coworker’s e-mail address or try to text them, because even if he tells me his name, I will probably not recognize him in a different context.

Whenever I arrange to meet someone, I am usually not looking for a face I recognize.  I am looking for someone who fits the general description of the person I am meeting (age, gender, skin color, hair color, hair style, etc.) and who appears to be looking for me (by making eye contact or smiling when they see me).  Until I am sure who they are, I hedge by pretending to recognize them in a way that is hopefully also plausible as simple friendliness if they turn out to be someone I don’t know.

6:00  This exact thing happened to me with a friend who changed her hairstyle between school quarters.  She no longer had her hair in a ponytail, and that was enough to make me unsure that she was the same person until she greeted me by name!

I don’t experience quite as much dissonance as Jacob Hodes appears to, though.  If I saw a person change their hairstyle in front of me, they wouldn’t “disappear.”  I know they’re the same person because they haven’t gone anywhere.

8:00  The interview with artist Chuck Close is probably my favorite part of the segment.  I think he does a good job of explaining the thought processes a faceblind person uses to identify people, and showing how you can still be good at recognizing people by paying attention to details.  I think I also recognized the picture of Leno by the chin and of Tiger Woods by the lips.  I thought Tom Cruise was Doug Flutie, though.

Until I read about face blindness, I thought this was how everyone recognized faces.

10:00  I can echo what these people are saying.  The idea that most people have a mechanism that instantly and automatically “labels” faces for them seems as weird and unexpected to me as face blindness appears to be to Lesley Stahl.  Half the people I know say they are bad with faces, so I just figured I fit into the same category.  Maybe I do, and it’s a spectrum like autism rather than a sharp divide between “normal” and “not normal” the way the segment makes it appear.

11:05  Thanks, Ms. Stahl.  What a cheery thought!  (sarcasm)

12:00  I haven’t had the experience of not recognizing my own face, but I don’t really need to recognize it very often.  I mean, when I look in a mirror, the person in the mirror is going to be me, right?  Other people stay on my side of the mirror.

Moe by Michael Firman (click to visit webcomic)

Part 2:

1:50  It would have to be very disorienting to suddenly become faceblind like this woman did.  I think it’s probably easier for me because I am used to it, although sometimes I think I am getting more faceblind as I age.

3:45  Once again, this describes the challenge of recognizing faces very well.  I would be hard pressed to tell the two dark-haired women apart unless I had more context to work with– what they were wearing, where they were, or how they spoke, moved, or acted.

4:25  Oddly enough, this test works as it should for me.  I didn’t notice that the eyes and mouth were wrong on the altered image when it was upside down, but it was immediately obvious when they were flipped.  What that means, I don’t know.

4:55  Despite that, looking at an upside-down face is more like looking at an upside-down word to me, so that fits with this explanation of face blindness.

6:20  That is pretty typical of how science works.  So far, the main thing we know is that we don’t know a lot!  : )

9:00  The part with the “super-recognizer” is neat!  It would be amazing to be able to recognize people even from pictures of them as children.

11:00  I feel bad for Tim; I’ve been in similar situations to what he describes, having to assume I know someone that comes up to me and trying to pretend until they reveal something that allows me to put the puzzle together.  I didn’t struggle with this as much at his age.  I think I didn’t notice my face blindness as much because I kept to myself and the same group of friends, but in college, situations like the one Tim describes became common for me.

Interesting that the opposite end of the spectrum can have difficulties as well.

13:00  The comments at the end seem unnecessarily bleak.  I can understand the anxious thoughts expressed by these people, and I’ve had them at times.  But I don’t think that face blindness keeps me from being able to love.  My ability to appreciate the beauty of a face is not impaired.

More importantly, a person is much more than his or her face.  When I love someone, what I love is the entire collection of things that make them who they are.

It brings to mind a conversation from a Star Trek episode about the android, Mr. Data:

“Did Tasha have many friends here?”
“Yes. She was especially close to Commander Riker and Lieutenant Worf. And to myself.”
“Are you able to have friends?”
“Yes.”
“But you don’t have feelings, do you?”
“Not as such. However, even among humans, friendship is sometimes less an emotional response and more a sense of familiarity.”
“So you can become used to someone?”
“Exactly. As I experience certain sensory input patterns, my mental pathways become accustomed to them. The inputs eventually are anticipated, and even missed when absent.”
“Like my sister.”
“Yes, like your sister.”

Anyway, thanks for reading my comments.  If you see me, say hi!  I’ll probably act like I know you.  : )

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