This has been the year of a thousand faces. Every face is an inch or two high on my laptop screen, and trapped inside a rectangle. The rectangles form a wall of faces that builds up brick by brick. As each new face arrives, the wall shifts and rearranges itself. Outside, in the real world, other people’s faces have been frustratingly elusive, half-hidden by masks. Or they have averted their gaze, focused on completing their essential journeys and not wishing to exchange their spittle with mine. But here the faces keep coming, popping up magically from wherever they are in the world, happy to be seen.
During lulls in meetings, my eyes scan the virtual room. You can look long and hard at people’s faces online in a way that would be rude in real life. I have never before paid this much attention to how a hairline runs along the top of a forehead, or an eye sits in its socket, or a jawline segues into a neck. I hadn’t noticed how vulnerable faces are — so soft, fleshy and bruisable — and how mercurially they move between moods. The faces look by turns dazed, dogged, sweetly attentive, full of faraway thoughts that no one could guess at, and as if they are trying hard to be bright-eyed and smiley but might suddenly dissolve into tears. It’s been that kind of year.
Encountering faces like this feels oddly intimate, but also inadequate. All the intricate topography and chiaroscuro of their features is gone. Some faces are right in front of a window, which bathes them in impenetrable shadow. Others are too near the screen and blanched by its blue-light glow. Others move jumpily, out of sync with their speech, or freeze mid-flow, with eyes closed and mouth open, as if in ecstatic prayer.
Strangest of all, none of these faces ever returns my gaze. We can’t maintain eye contact because we are looking at our screens, not our Web cams. The whites of human eyes are bigger than those of other animals, which allows us to pick up on where they are looking, a vital social cue. Even when those eyes are no bigger than full stops on your screen, you can still tell when they are not looking at you.
HUNGRY FOR FACES
We are born hungry for other people’s faces. Babies less than 10 minutes old have been shown to prefer a picture of a human face to other images. Our brains are so eager to spot faces that this accounts for the most common form of pareidolia, the human tendency to make meaningful shapes out of random patterns. People can’t resist seeing faces in cloud formations, knobbly tree trunks, house frontages, pieces of toast… All it takes is the barest suggestion of two eyes and a mouth. The brain does the rest.
What makes faces so compelling is that each one is both reassuringly familiar and utterly distinctive. The design template hasn’t changed for millennia. The faces of bodies found in bogs, centuries old but preserved by the peat, have chin stubble, furrowed brows, laughter lines and bags under their eyes. Those faces are just like ours, while remaining definitively their own. Every face is made of the standard-issue raw materials of skin, bone, muscle, cartilage and fatty tissue. It has the same roughly oval shape and the same classic arrangement: eyes and ears spaced to allow us to see and hear in stereo; nose above the mouth to reduce the chances of choking; jaw and mouth built for eating, speaking and grinning. And still every face manages to be as original as a fingerprint.
The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas believed that looking at other people’s faces was how we learned to be human. Every face we meet, he thought, reminds us that we share the world with people who are fundamentally like us but who are also, like us, irreducibly unique. Levinas was inspired by the Talmud, the book of Jewish laws and teachings, which says that God “coins all people from Adam’s die and not one looks like another.”
Recognizing other people’s faces is a basic building block of social life. Most of us do it instantly and effortlessly. We can identify someone we know from a childhood photo of them, and someone we haven’t seen for years even though their face is now a saggy, wrinkled version of the one we knew. No one knows exactly how this virtuoso human skill works, but it seems to involve making a rough calculation about how the face knits together as a whole, rather than ticking off all the individual elements. That is why composite faces of criminal suspects are such bad likenesses. An eyewitness tries to recreate a face by choosing from a collection of parts — but we read faces more intuitively and impressionistically than this.
The problem with being so good at reading faces is that we over-read them. The neurons in the temporal and frontal lobes of our brains just start firing and making on-the-spot calculations, behind which sit unconscious biases. Multiple studies have pointed to the “attractiveness halo effect” — people with good-looking faces are seen as more competent, cleverer and nicer than the norm. As the Internet and the smartphone have made it easy to share images of our faces, these snap judgments have become part of daily life. Social media companies know that other people’s faces are human catnip and they use them to generate clicks. It’s called Facebook for a reason. Showing your face is part of the business model.
Out of a mix of shyness and cussedness, I mostly refuse to join in. I have never taken a selfie and hate having my picture taken if it will be posted online. I once persuaded a reluctant publisher that my author photo should be a picture of my hand holding a pen. My Twitter avatar is an image of the animated children’s television character Mr Benn. In a marketized culture that values the free flow of harvestable data, my reluctance to show my face marks me out as eccentric, even suspect.
“Please tell us why you don’t want to supply a profile picture,” one social media platform nags me, sounding not so much angry as disappointed. “No professional headshot needed!” says another, breezily. “Just something that represents you.”
I am old enough to remember when you had to meet someone to find out what they looked like. I feel like an alien, dropped into this new world of near-obligatory visibility. I still find it puzzling that people will happily upload photos of themselves to dating apps that allow anyone to say “like” or “nope” to their pictures, swiping away rejected matches as if they were brushing away a speck of dust.
In Don DeLillo’s novel Mao II, a Salinger-like author emerges from three decades of seclusion by agreeing to have his picture taken. The photographer warns him that people will “absolutely question your right to look different from your picture.”
I have found this to be true. And I would rather not be reduced to some frozen, two-dimensional simulacrum of my face that countless strangers can see. I prefer it when my actual face interacts with other people’s actual faces. A face is protean. Eyes and lips are part-liquid and glisten with life. Skin changes color and tone. A baffling variety of muscles works the face’s many movable parts. Our eyebrows convey a whole world of meaning. We make and remake our faces every moment of our lives.
The neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks was painfully aware of this fluid, ungraspable quality of faces. He suffered from prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which affects about 2 percent of the population. Prosopagnosiacs can’t identify people from their faces. Once, Sacks was grooming his beard while looking at what he thought was his reflection in a window. Slowly it dawned on him that there was another bearded man on the other side of the glass, wondering why this strange person was staring at him and preening himself. Sacks’s face blindness aggravated his already acute shyness. He avoided most social gatherings, knowing they would involve the embarrassment of failing to recognize people he knew well, or greeting strangers as old friends. Sacks died in 2015. He might have found Zoom, which always attaches a name to a face, a godsend.
“Face blindness” is a misnomer, really. Prosopagnosiacs are in fact fierce noticers of faces, scanning them carefully for idiosyncratic, telltale details like moles, wonky teeth and monobrows. They just can’t skip over the details to make that simple click of recognition. They look afresh at every new iteration of a face. When that face is lit from an odd angle, or its owner is feeling tired and drained, they might as well be looking at a completely new face — which in a sense they are. The rest of us process faces so quickly that we have stopped looking at them.
After this year, though, I don’t think I will ever take faces for granted again. Now the world is reopening and once more filling up with faces — real, contoured, actual-size faces. As I pass people in the street, I hold their gaze for slightly longer than normal, perhaps because eye contact feels like a new-won privilege. I might just be projecting my own feelings on to them, but those faces look sober and chastened to me, aware of how swiftly the world can change and hopes can be dashed. I find myself agreeing with the Mexican priest in Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, who believes that when you look hard enough at other people’s faces, at the corners of their eyes and the shape of their mouths, you can’t help feeling tenderly towards them. Hate, he thinks, is “just a failure of the imagination.” Or perhaps just a failure to look.
People younger than me have a phrase they use when conversing online: “I see you.” It can be used for everything from complimenting a friend on a new haircut to comforting them when they feel rejected or wronged. At heart it means “I have noticed your existence.” Now that we are locking eyes with each other again, I realize how much I have missed being “seen”. The other day I saw a friend outside the supermarket and we stopped to talk, maskless and a few feet apart, like we did in the before times. The face in front of me didn’t blur or pixelate like the ones on my laptop, nor was there any disconcerting time lag in the way it responded to mine. It just picked up where it left off a year ago, noticing my nods and smiles and mirroring them with its own — a wordless message I had almost forgotten how to read. Roughly translated it said: “I see you.”
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