Think of the last face you just saw, perhaps only a few moments ago. Try to briefly recall the interaction you had and think of what was communicated without words, by simply looking at each other’s faces.
Instantly, effortlessly, you interpreted the subtlest of signals: the quality of the other person’s eyes as they looked into yours, the shift of the eyebrows, the movement of the lips into a smile or a grimace. Within a fraction of a second, your own face responded to these signals, long before you were aware of what you had read in them.
This dance, this miraculous wordless communication we rely on every day, is at the heart of how we understand ourselves and others.
What would happen if your ability to decode faces was impaired? What if faces were impenetrable to you, confusing and inconsistent, a source of anxiety rather than connection?
What does science have to say about this very fundamental aspect of our humanity?
Face-blindness and its consequences
People with prosopagnosia are able to recognize the spatial layout and individual characteristics of a face, but are unable to process these parts as an entire face. Instead, they focus on secondary features, such as hair, clothing or voice to recognize people.
As you might imagine, being unable to read faces or recognize others has important social consequences. People with prosopagnosia face a number of psychological challenges as a result. Studies show that these include chronic anxiety, feelings of embarrassment, guilt, and failure, as well as social avoidance and poor self-confidence.
This demonstrates the powerful social role of faces, and the major difficulties that can arise when the ability to read them is impaired.
How do you think it might affect your life if recognizing others was a challenge?
Think to how many daily interactions depend on your ability to effortlessly recognize who you’re speaking to.
Consider these famous figures with prosopagnosia. How might their difficulty with faces have affected their choice of career?
Interestingly, some people with prosopagnosia have covert face recognition. Though they may not be aware of it, they recognize faces unconsciously.
Studies show that these individuals have an emotional response to familiar faces, but no response to unfamiliar faces. This is measured by tracking changes in skin conductance, a physiological response that occurs beneath consciousness but is highly sensitive for measuring an emotional reaction to a stimulus.
However, this finding is only true in people who acquired prosopagnosia later in life. This may be related to the degree of damage to the brain structures involved in face recognition. If some structures remain intact, this unconscious face recognition persists.
Thus, they have an emotional response without recognition of the face.
Delusion of doubles
The opposite is found in the Capgras delusion. In this disorder, subjects believe that their loved ones have been replaced by imposters or body doubles. People with Capgras delusion have recognition of faces without an emotional response. This is such a strange experience that it leads to profound impairment.
These individuals identify their loved ones correctly but lack the expected emotional response due to focal neurological damage. The brain’s way to make sense of this cognitive dissonance is to assume that the loved one must be an imposter: why else would they feel nothing towards this person they know so well?
This also highlights the important interplay between perception and emotion. If either one is impaired, or if communication between the two is disrupted, our ability to interact socially is profoundly disrupted.
As a result, our beliefs and emotions can be thrown into disarray. We place so much emphasis on our perceptions that we sometimes forget that they are extremely fallible.
Can you think of how, in more subtle ways, your perceptions of others might affect the narrative you weave about your own life?
Our ability to connect with others and follow their cues is closely tied to our reading of their face. When the brain is impaired, our entire understanding of the world can be thrown off.
If you think you might be in the minority of those for whom this is a struggle, how has this impacted your life?
If you are lucky enough to recognize faces effortlessly, can you imagine how different your life would be if this were a challenge?