Thursday, 10 November 2011

In a Sea of Faces

Pareidolia is the name given to that phenomenon that forces us to see faces in clouds, wood grain, the hills on Mars. So important is it to us that we recognise faces that vast amounts of our neural equipment is given over to the processing of facial recognition. Indeed, we even have a special brain area (which is interestingly non-functional in some people with a condition called prosopagnosia or "face blindness where they cannot recognise even close members of family).
It seems astonishing that in general, a face we have seen only briefly before will "ring a bell" even in a huge crowd of other faces. Scanning quickly across a group of people, generally we know those we have seen before and those who are new to us. We are good at faces.

And even when it is a face we have not seen for a number of years, some clever "morphing algorithm" seems to add in offsets for wrinkles, the continuing growth of nose length or the lack of hair. A face from school can suddenly leap out at us from within the aged features of a seeming stranger with such clarity that you are moved beyond the fear of embarrassment to ask "Excuse me, but are you....?". Usually, I find this to be quite reliable and only rarely do I come up with a false match. In those cases, strangely, interesting conversations usually result anyway and so I find it usually best to put oversensitivity to one side and just ask.

Today though, I had a different experience. Having had a rather heavy time of it lately with much travel on aeroplanes and when here, many late nights due to dinner with customers, I decided to take it a bit easy. A sudden desire for indolence overtook me and so, after chacking email for pressing issues and reassuring myself that the world can happily manage without me for a bit, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down to listen to the wonderful Melvyn Bragg on In Our Time.

Well, "working from Home" is all very well, but as I have described previously in a rather rambling piece, after a few hours, I start to talk to the furniture. So, after a curious exchange with the new coffee table, where I berated it for its inherent lack of stability, I decided it was time I took a wander up the High Street, possibly to buy a cake or a newspaper, and hopefully, I thought, I might enter into conversation with someone a little more animate.

Well, the usual pleasantries took place during my stroll but none notable enough to describe here. I wandered up to the splendidly sarcastic greengrocers to see if they had anything that took my fancy. Looking up from a fascinating display of Pink Lady apples, I espied a face that seemed somehow familiar. Male pattern baldness and gravity had taken its toll on the pallid features, but buried amongst them was the face, barely distinguishable, of that of a boy that in my mind's eye I could see only fresh-faced and clear-eyed by a cricket pitch in 1979.
At least, I thought it was. I didn't want to appear to be paying too much attention, but my curiosity and a smug satisfaction that if indeed it was him, then time had been far kinder to me, kept me serruptitiously sneaking glances.
And then he spoke, and all doubt was removed.

Never having been particularly fond of this character and not wishing to say hello and to then have the embarrassing situation of having no further avenues of conversation, I refrained form addressing him. After a while, slothlike and world-weary, his middle-aged frame receded down towards the clocktower clutching a cucumber and a 5lb bag of King Edwards.

Now, smugness aside, a thought struck me, a rather worrisome thought if I am honest: There comes a point at which the morphing algorithm seems no longer to be able to to compensate for intervening time. A face i remembered scribbling vast armies of cartoon stick men at primary school, in the back of his exercise book, was only just recognisable to me over thirty years later.
Up until a few years ago, faces from school rarely went unrecognised, but somehow in the last few years, another stage has been reached.

A face seems to retain its inherent features from fourteen or so, when the adult form initially takes shape and you can see how someone will appear for the majority of their adult lives. But at mid forties, it seems it passes on to another stage, which my brain cannot rectify into the previous familiar character. Most seem to get rounder and develop jowls. Hair recedes or disappears (in men mostly. Ladies often get more, at least in some facial areas) and a face becomes something completely different in justa few years.
It struck me that on a daily basis now, I may be passing old friends in the street who, because of the ravages of time, I may not notice. Something about middle-age distorts our features to a new form and a bosom buddy at ten might be addressing you in a queue about how the post office needs more counters, and you would not even know that we had shared hours of idle conversation sat in a tree in the churchyard in 1976.

As I wandered, pondering this, back down towards the bike shop, I saw a lady come out of a shop. She was my age, I know she was because I recognised her. At 15 she had been a notable beauty, one of those feted for her favours. That happens to the beautiful, I have noticed.
I remember the arrogance that beauty seemed to permit: How she replied to a small hopeful friend of mine that "No! I wouldn't go out with you if you were the last boy in the world!" crushing the lad's self-esteem possibly to this day.
eeing this mousy-haired, plump, plain lady of 45 or so, it occurred to me once more how we are all just passing through. We place so much value on appearance and yet it is so subject to change.

I said hello to her with my warmest winning smile and saw her momentarily cheered by the attention. I wondered if she remembered the long-haired ragamuffin from all those decades ago and his crestfallen friend and could translate, herself, his features onto this man who passed her in the street. I don't think so.

It is not something that concerns me unduly: The passage of time and its effect upon my face. Laughter and smiles made small deltas appear at the corners of my eyes. Frowns of concentration have furrowed my increasingly hirsuite singular eyebrow.
My wrinkles tell more about me, I hope, than the symmetry of my features or the length of my (several times broken) nose.
And I am happy with that, whether I am recognisable or not.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

How intriguing all of this is. We can readily concur with what you write about the placing of a face, the reassembling of the facial indicators in order to fix the person from the 'windmills' of the mind. But, as for placing a name to the face, well, that always seems to us to be something that any Americans we know are particularly adept at whilst we struggle to bring even the most familiar of names to the fore. Could there be racial strengths here, we wonder, or is it just we that have the 'naming' part of the brain withering on the vine?

We are absolutely with you, however, about a face which tells a story. Not of facelifts, nipping, tucking or plumping but of a life well lived and well laughed about!

Thank you so much for the comment which you left on our recent post to which we have made reply. We shall very much hope to welcome you again, maybe even tempting you to become a Follower!!


Oh dear, I read the title of this post on the small screen of my phone as "A Sea of Faeces". Silly me.
Reading this post reminded me of two occasions where I bumped into pupils I worked with who have an autistic spectrum disorder.
One, Tom, spied me in town. I walked over to say hello, and he protested (non verbally) very strongly. Tom's mother explained that he couldn't handle seeing familiar faces out of their usual setting. Another, Afiq, spied me at the park on a warm day and tried to cover my exposed flesh (forearms, face, neck and ankles) by stretching my clothes. His dad explained he does this to all ladies, just not in school - he somehow accepted western clothes in school, not elsewhere.
My mum seems to have trouble recognising people she knows well when out and about. Unless they physically shake her, she will walk straight past a former colleague/old friend without so much as w nod of acknowledgement.
Forgetting a name is hardly a crime in comparison!

Librarian said...

Faces and voices are part of what makes me recognise people, as well as their posture and gait. And I usually have no trouble in remembering names, which comes in quite useful at my job in sales. Of course, it does happen that I see someone in an environment where I least expect them, and then it takes a moment for me to link a name to the face, knowing that "I know this guy (or woman) from somewhere..." until I remember.
What you say about the woman that used to be one of the beauties at school I saw happening to someone like her; she was much admired when we were teenagers, and when, a few years ago, my year had a "20 years after" reunion, she looked plain and I doubt men turn around to stare after her when she walks past now. The nice thing about this is that she has become a much more pleasant person; we suddenly found we could talk to each other, and I liked her a lot better than when she used to be the rather haughty girl obsessed with fashion labels.

Genius Loci said...

'It struck me that on a daily basis now, I may be passing old friends in the street who, because of the ravages of time, I may not notice. Something about middle-age distorts our features to a new form and a bosom buddy at ten might be addressing you in a queue about how the post office needs more counters, and you would not even know that we had shared hours of idle conversation sat in a tree in the churchyard in 1976.'

Something about that struck a chord. I go back to my (very small) home town perhaps twice a year. I left about ten years ago. It's interesting to see how the faces change each time I visit.

PerlNumquist said...

Insightful comments all, thank you. A "sea of Faeces" reminds me of a beach once near Swansea. Nuff said.
I am a little familiar with the autistic spectrum, at least down nearer the Asperger end. We have it mildly in the family. The focus it brings, specifically to matters technical, is incredibly useful and makes up for those difficult social moments. Once you know the peculiarites of the condition, it gets easier to understand why people do what they do. Minor face blindness seems also to be a feature here.
As for remembering names to go with faces: I have a system which involves mnemonics. I will describe it in another post when I am not supposed to be working. Its very simple and will make you laugh. I use it to accurately remember the names of the dozens of ladies who I dance with at my dance class.
Ad change, if observed as a gradual process, or one of regular steps, can be a mildly disconcerting feeling: Far more so perhaps than when it has been observed after an interval spanning decades. Spookier though, are those faces that look EXACTLY the same after thirty years, but for some grey hair. That happened recently and I was astonished and compelled to say so.
I never go back to my home village. It depresses me. It reminds me of isolation and loneliness. I much prefer now, where there are people around to talk to who don't look at you suspiciously if you use a word with three syllables or more.