Friday, January 17, 2014


TEST QUESTION - How many portraits posted in this blog  can you identify?

I’m sure you know the experience of seeing a person in a crowd and instantly recognizing them but since you are seeing them out of the usual context can't remember who they are.  My dental hygienist at the movie...the guy I buy bread from in the Afghan bakery in the shopping mall...the check-out lady from the grocery at the library... What is it about the human face?  No two are alike and we have the capacity to distinguish and remember hundreds... (perhaps thousands) of faces and recognize them instantly.  This must have evolutionary significance for our species.

Most other animals can't  do this. Can penguins recognize their buddies as they stand around waiting for their eggs to hatch?  How about a herd of wildebeests doing their huge migration?... or sea lions lounging around on the beach.  Dogs do their identification with the sniff test, seagulls tell each other apart by the color pattern of the iris of the eye, cats don’t care.

Even more remarkable is our ability to ‘see’ faces with our mind alone.  Can’t you visualize your spouse or your children when they are not present?   Can’t you ‘see’ the difference with your mind alone between the neighbor to your left and the neighbor to the right?  We can even clearly ‘see’ those long dead or those we know only from photos or paintings... Can’t you ‘see’ the images of Abraham Lincoln and that of Martin Luther King?  What is it with this strange thing we call ‘mind’?  

I can recall individuals to whom I only had a brief exposure. There was the guy on the BART train with giant holes in his ear lobes through which he had stuck large pieces of bone – I once passed closely by Vaclav Havel – Out a Turkish train window, I saw a face with advanced leprosy – I remember the face of a child eating a bowl of food in Tanzania – A student in Oakland with her hand raised eager to answer a question – an old woman in the public market in Cusco laughing at a joke.  I can visualize them even though I actually saw some of them long ago.

When I encounter people that I haven’t seen for a very long time,  my memory of their faces may be a mismatch with the person before me.  I went to a high school reunion and while voices and style of laughter may be the same – the faces have been changed by years of living, wrinkles, hair or lack there of, and the on-set of reserve.  

Its especially spooky to see people that a knew as children now as mature adults.  I frequently encounter previous students that I remember as 16 -17 year olds now with extra weight or gravitas ... sometimes unrecognizable as the kid I knew.  But the curious thing is that I often see enough clues that my brain says “ I know you...” And I can usually dredge up a name to go with the face.

When I was a young person growing up in a conservative town I often found people who said things like ”All Orientals look exactly alike – I cant tell them apart.” That statement tells me that this person has had very little contact with Asian people.  When I look out at a classroom with many Chinese kids – each person is every bit as unique as people of European ancestry.  Such statements are born of ignorance and prejudice.

I do have my limitations. When I watch television – my wife says “Do you remember other roles where we have seen this actor?  Me – “Not a clue” – I am caught up in the story and I am not in the least thinking of the actors and where I may have seen then before.  Then there are the times I see a face and cant come up with the name.   “Mr. Zlatnik, remember me I was in your class back in 1975?"... Duh...

Its true what they say: "The face we have is a reflection of the life we have lived."  A sour unhappy person reflects their disposition in their face.  A person who lives with peace and joy has nice wrinkles, kind eyes.