Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Beard Meetings

A few years ago now, some big city, either Manchester or that other one, paid about seven million quid for a facial recognition system that would plug into the city centre CCTV and allow the authorities to quickly spot and track down malcontents, miscreants and general riffraffery. The system was turned on with great fanfare, only for it to rapidly become clear that... it didn't work. At all. Further investigation revealed that not only did it not work, it had never worked in the first place.

Which is the first time I've ever felt sorry for a bit of software, because my own facial recognition system is at best somewhat glitchy (it has been pointed out in the comments below that the technical term for this is prosopagnosia) . Mind you, that CCTV system didn't even recognise black people as being human beings as opposed to, say, strangely mobile bits of building or shrubbery, and I'm not quite that bad. No-one's ever paid seven million quid for me to turn up for a thing that I can not only not do, but also be a massive racist into the bargain (I'm sure someone will let me know if I misremember).

My not-goodness at faces would lead to conversations like this one, in my early twenties:

FRIEND:  Why do you keep blanking me in town?
ME: I've never blanked you!
FRIEND: You regularly walk past me, and you only spot me if I put my face in front of yours and say HELLOOOOOO!
ME:   Yes! That's how people recognise each other from a distance of more than eight inches, surely?
ME: Yes, well, you say that.
FRIEND: We've also shared a house for the last four years.

I realised a while ago this also partly explains my long struggle to deal with abstract concepts like plot and narrative structure, because if you're not great at face, the film-watching experience goes like this:

ME: okay, the dark-haired guy in this who stabbed someone earlier is now arresting... himself! Wait, they're two different people! He's cloned himself! This film is BRILLIANT! Oh wait, they're two different people. And now the blond woman has gone back in time to fight her earlier self - oh that's her sister.
FRIEND: I'm not watching films with you any more.

Anyway, after that, I put a lot more processing power into actors' faces, and now I'm all 'ooh he was Phoebe's boyfriend in series one of Friends, that guy was in Grosse Point Blank for about thirty seconds' and so on, which is just as annoying but in the other direction.

I also got better at actual real life peoples' faces once I tried out the whole 'eye contact' thing, but the system still crashes from time to time, thusly:

A couple of years ago:


I am waiting to meet a lovely producer I worked with on a fun project about six months previous. An unfamiliar lady, a PA I assume, wanders out and starts talking to me about a new project, which is nice, but we should probably wait until the producer is here. After about half an hour I start to wonder if the producer is ever going to turn up, and then the penny drops.

ME: Wait, it's you! You had a haircut!
ME: (quickly) Nothing.

AND NOW WE ARE UP TO SPEED. Well, yesterday. I am in an animation workshop, involving four other writers and a lady producer (I haven't seen a man producer in about five years, I think they've all died out). Having drunk an enormous amount of coffee, I suddenly realise I quite need what the americans refer to as a 'bathroom break', so I dash out, and then I dash back again, because I don't want to miss anything. Bearing in mind I also have quite poor spacial awareness (if you are thinking to yourself that this writer is possibly a couple of steps into the 'bit special' spectum, I would say this: BINGO), I run back in roughly the same direction, see a group of people through a glass door, crash through and sit down.

There follows a moment of silence, at which point it occurs to me I am quite possibly IN THE WRONG ROOM ENTIRELY and about to utterly derail series six of Game of Thrones or something.

Quickly I cast my mind back to a few seconds ago and try to recall the exact faces I saw through the glass door. All I can come up with is that they were definitely faces.

It's still silent. Suddenly I remember: it was a comedy/animation writers' workshop. Beards! Beards are the answer! I look up very slightly and assess the beardage in a clockwise direction. Fair beard, dark beard, lady producer with no beard, dark beard, ginger beard. I reach up to my own face, bit stubbly, this probably is me. I am almost definitely in the correct room. It's still a bit quiet though. Finally:

PRODUCER: All right, James?

Anyway, it all worked out fine.


John Cowan said...

Like me and about 2% of humanity, you have developmental prosopagnosia, or face blindness, the inability to distinguish individuals by face alone. It's not to be confused with not being able to remember people's names, a far commoner problem. You've almost certainly had it all your life, and you probably have a mild to moderate case (I have a moderate one). (Severe cases can't even recognize themselves when looking in a mirror.) People with it often have trouble navigating social networks (the real kind, not Facebook), and become computer programmers (me), writers (you), or other jobs that limit the extent to which they have to deal with lots of different human beings.

It sounds like (unlike me) you've managed to leverage your regular cognitive abilities, the ones that let you distinguish one brick from another in a brick wall — if you absolutely have to — to the job of distinguishing one person from another. That's good. There are also other workarounds: voices, attire, accessories, when you see someone, where you see someone.

For a long time prosopagnosia was thought to be very rare (1 in 100,000), but that's people who become prosopagnosic, usually as a result of a head injury. They, of course, complain loudly and immediately that they can't recognize anyone, whereas we only slowly get used to the idea that we can't. (From our point of view, everyone else has a superpower: Instant Facial Recognition Without Thinking About It.) There is no treatment and no cure, but you may want to volunteer for a study (google "face blindness") to help along the researchers who are working on it. I've now gotten to the point where, whenever I start a new job, I make sure everyone knows about my face blindness: I usually tell a few people and make it clear that they should pass it through the rumor mill. My motto is "No stigma!"

Anonymous said...

Well, this is interesting. In all my long years, I'd not given this much thought but now realise that I'm also susceptible to this issue. To the extent, occasionally where my experience of finding a face familiar becomes a semi-psychic episode.... Until a little later, when I realise that the woman in question is a regular at my local.

It should be said, though, that some faces are far more prepossessing than others.

James Henry said...

Interesting stuff, thanks John (and I quite agree, anonymous).

I think it's also a good reason why a lot of the people on the nerdier/aspergers end of the spectrum get into science fiction and graphic novels - much easier to tell characters apart when some of them have weird foreheads, or are monsters or robots. Similar to how autistic children are supposed to really take to Thomas the Tank Engine, because the fixed expressions make emotions much easier to read.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous is @ArdPad, in this instance and the previous one too.

Having given all this a little more thought I'd like to share another experience with you. A short story.

Many years ago, some companions and I decided to visit the famous Hampstead pub, the Jugs, to do a bit of celebrity spotting. Well, of course, I was totally dependent on them spotting them on my behalf, of course. During the course of an inevitably boozy Sunday afternoon I found myself quickly in need of a place to relieve myself of the beer I'd rented. Off I go to search out the facilities and find myself in another very busy and extremely long room with tables to each side and a constant flow of people to and fro the bar. I deftly, with some urgency made my way through the throng. Right up to the point where I collided with my own, unrecognised, reflection in the full length, full width mirror. I didn't piss myself.

Phill Barron said...

I suffer too. I find black and white films particularly challenging - not only is everyone the same ethnicity but they're all wearing suits and hats.

I've long since given up on introducing myself to anyone in case I already know them and/or are related to them.

Benjamin Russell said...

I've been working in secondary schools for more than a decade, and the real difficulty is not just that people get rather severe haircuts that completely change the shapes of their faces (this I particularly true of young men, who would rather continue to acquire a large dust mop on their heads in order to, a) hide their faces from the world, and b) not be touched in a perfunctory yet intimate way by a middle-aged woman ith scissors in her hands), but also that their faces elongate and sharpen and change. As does their various fashion senses, which can take some quite radical diversions, depending upon who's famous and what sport season it is. All of which has led me to the inescPable conclusion that it's completely unrealistic to expect me to know if a given student I'm talking to is a brand new student, just transferred in, or a regular visitor who has integrated with me for up to four years. And yet, they always seem insulted when I have no idea who they are. To pre-empt that particular adolescent outrage, I've begun starting all my student interactions that way ("Who are you and what do you want?" is my typical opener to a conversation), which hasn't exactly mitigated circumstances, but it has made them more commonplace.

John Cowan said...

Yeesh, Benjamin, that seems a tad aggressive. I hope you don't get found face down in the parking lot some fine morning. Of course they're insulted: they assume you just can't be bothered remembering who they are. I spent my entire life with people angry at me, and I never knew why.

Matt Farmer said...

See, I get social anxiety and as part of it I have the opposite problem.

If I'm meeting someone somewhere, even if it's a friend I've known for ages or someone I see on a regular basis, if I get there before they do my brain will just shout "OH GOD! WHAT IF I DON'T RECOGNISE THEM WHEN THEY GET HERE?!" at me until they arrive. Despite the fact that as far as I can remember, it's never happened.

Littlepippin76 said...

Yes, a friend highlighted to me that I have this after years of stumbling around blindly, getting panic attacks in a crowd (I know I know at least one of these people but I don't bloody know which one!) I had just assumed that everybody identified other people via this long process of elimination that was fairly hit and miss. It's not always noticeable because most of the time you're using memory to identify hair/glasses/clothes/beards. I tend to get by with how people move and their voices, but I rely on someone saying at least 'hello' to me to be able to start the elimination process going.

Further investigation seems to suggest that the same part of our brains used for mapping faces also connects to mapping geography. Obvious visible markers are great, but I'm completely unable to be confident that this street on the map relates to this street in reality. I can't manage more than one instruction on a map at a time and have to move slowly and count carefully otherwise this utterly unfamiliar road is clearly the wrong one.

Inside buildings too. Leaving rooms into corridors causes a dizzying moment where I have no clue at all which way I'm facing. I'll walk miles in the wrong direction looking for the door that I was pretty sure was pretty close. That's why your glass fronted room could be one of a number of identical glass fronted room. If you don't know quite where you left your glass fronted room (or blue doored room, or whatever else) there's a good chance you'll never find it again.

James Henry said...

I'm just the same, I always need to be massively early for meetings, because if I haven't to the location at least three times before, and built up some kind of narrative, I'll confidently head off in the wrong direction at least three times.

At least now I can pre-plan routes on Google Street View, whether I'm walking or driving, and look out for landmarks and so on.

Suw said...

I am not good at faces at all, and utterly terrible at names, but the anxiety that meeting people and having to recognise them is totally out of proportion to what actually happens. Introductions are the worst, as I almost never remember people's names long enough to then introduce them to someone else who comes along. I've taken to warning people that I'm shit at names and hoping that they'll forgive me.

But it's not just new people whose names I forget. I once forgot the name of a friend I'd known for 15 years when having to introduce her to a new friend whose name I actually did remember.

Oddly, given he above, I'm really good at maps.

Anonymous said...

It's me again.

Thought this might be of interest.

John Cowan said...

Suw, if you are able to know who people are (what their role in your life is, etc.) but just don't remember their names, that is not face blindness, so it's not surprising you don't have trouble with maps.

I find I can cope with maps if I make sure to orient the map the same as reality, even if that means holding it upside down.

ArdPad: Thanks for the link, which eventually led me to Oliver Sacks's announcement of his coming death.