I’m writing to you from Shanghai tonight, a city of contradictions where it’s just as likely you’ll find a person on their Macbook Air as someone using an abacus. I’m sitting in a Starbucks, that most American of institutions, right around the corner from my hotel on the eastern side of the old city. As I watch the people pass by me, I can’t help but see the doppelgangers of my friends and family, the mind’s trickery played out on stranger's faces.
Face is important. It’s estimated that a third of the brain is dedicated to reading and interpreting faces. If that area, specifically the fusiform gyrus, gets damaged, you walk around without the ability to recognize anyone. People with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, as it’s sometimes called, are literally unable to pick their mother or best friend out of a lineup.
If that’s face blindness, how good is your face vision? Try this experiment. Think of someone you know really well and then try to describe their features. After several minutes when you’ve exhausted all the basics--nose, mouth, eyes, ears, forehead, cheekbones, hair, scars and maybe a runaway mole or two--what you’ll find is that your description would still fit a large percentage of the population. Despite your best attempt, your abilities to describe faces in a meaningful way is still shockingly inadequate. It makes you wonder how you’re able to pick out anyone out of a crowd.
Lately, neuroscientists have begun to crack the face code. One theory is that we don’t actually store faces per se in our neural wiring. Rather, we store a set of data points. Think of a grid with a north/south and east/west axis. Now imagine that your facial recognition software begins with a perfectly balanced idea of a face, a kind of generic everyman/everywoman. (For an idea of how this might look, check out this site, which generates an “average” face for various nationalities, based on a composite of many pictures.)
When you encounter someone, your mental software kicks into gear and searches for key data points against this generic face. The further their features move away from these axes in any given direction, the more recognizable they become. So for example, take Angelina Jolie; her lips are way off the charts. This makes her pretty easy to spot in the crowd (that, and the fact that she’s standing next to Brad Pitt).
The beauty of this system is that it conserves a ton of space. Instead of cramming a bunch of whole faces into the dank basement of our mental repository, we only need to store the point variations along the axes. When artists draw caricatures, they're just accentuating a handful of unique data points that stray from the central axes of John/Jane Doe. Amazingly, with this limited number of clues we can tell exactly who they’ve drawn. A couple of curvy lines later and you’ve got Alfred Hitchcock.
“But wait,” you say. “I’m not a series of dots on some graph! I’m more than just some deviations from an imaginary standard! I’m a human being, dammit!” To which I say, “Please calm down, it’s going to be okay.” But also: fair enough. The identity, the image we project to the outside world is so much more complex than the shape of our noses, the curve of an eyebrow. When Roberta Flack sang “the first time ever I saw your face”, she meant a little more than “the first time ever I encoded your facial data points.” (Not exactly a beat you can dance to.)
In a less tangible sense, “face” takes on another meaning entirely. The concept is said to have started right here in China, where it’s been discussed since at least 1046. It was once elegantly explained to me by Neil Mauriello, former NYPD detective of the famed Jade Squad, an elite team who worked Chinatown in the 80’s.
Since the drinks were flowing pretty heavily that night, I’ll give you the version I attribute to him in my novel. “Reputation is what precedes you, dignity is how you carry yourself, and respect is what others bestow upon you. Face is all of that and more. It’s propelled ragtag militias to snatch victory from the jaws of powerful nations. Fortunes have been made and lost over it, and it is coveted above all by every man, no matter his wealth, power or station in life. Its value can’t be overstated in Chinese culture. A man will forfeit his life to save face.”
There's a universality here. Similar expressions exist in Arabic, and in some First Nations tribes in Canada. 19th century Englishmen living in China brought the idea (or at least their understanding of it) back to the Western world, which is where we get common expressions like “to lose face”. Sociologists, a little behind the loop on this one, added it to their palette in the 1950’s. Still, given the number of face-related words in Mandarin-–at least 93 of them without an English counterpart--you get the sense we’re not working with all the colors.
The whole thing gets even more complicated when we look at the relationship between identity and social media, where we build a persona around a series of “likes” and status updates, all flanked by our smiling visage. (There’s a reason we call it facebook, and not thoughtbook or friendbook or, god forbid, pokebook.)
I guess there’s a reason why the brain devotes so many precious resources to face. On so many levels, it tells us who we are.