Big news from Hollywood as GQ cover story on Brad Pitt reveals his self-diagnosis of face blindness, a secret he has kept hidden (although he already mentioned it in an Esquire interview back in 2013) but has made him feel like nobody understands his condition. Surely his call to “meet another” person with a similar cognitive disorder will stir up “pusillanimous pretend friends to prosopagnosiacs” in his fan base. There is a deeper issue, however, that I want to explore in regards to digital media, and whether knowing yourself through facial recognition is as important an ability as many with unaffected memories might assume.
While there is a very intricate set of visual cues involved with recognizing a face. it remains an innate ability for all humans and several other species. It is hard to imagine what could go wrong, even though some cognitive psychologists will point out that the part of the brain that recognizes facial features is different from the more linguistic processing centres that conjures up names. When a disconnect happens, as Pitt explains, there is a feeling that he picks up on “that I’m disrespecting them” and makes an awkward lapse in memory even more painful to bear. As a dynamic actor known for embodying some of cinema’s most creative and charismatic roles for more than thirty years, perhaps others feel that someone so instantaneously recognizable should do better at recall when meeting face to face. Or perhaps since the advent of social media with its prominence of the selfie people have become a bit too attached to their name as a personal brand?
Two other people who enduring this affliction come from the world of computer programming, in fact are legendary figures who may have contributed greatly to the digital realm due to an inability to process faces and put names to them: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier. The former famously was the innovative brains behind the products that the more personable Steve Jobs marketed, while the latter reinvented reality with stereoscopic goggles and haptic gloves. As Jaron describes in his biography, The Dawn of the New Everything,
“Because I could not recognize people on sight, I had to become more sensitive to what they did and how they fit into the world if I was to be able to recognize them at all. … (Years later I would coinvent digital devices that could recognize faces for me, but I ultimately declined to use them. Trying to be “normal” is a fool’s game.)”Lanier, 2017, p. 111
So perhaps there is something buried deep in the design human-computer interfaces that rely on encoded graphics and avatar masks? When I was teaching in a classroom, as soon as the attendance was submitted I often found myself staring at nameless faces whose names I had just uttered a few moments before, and I wished that I had the augmented reality glasses that could instantly call up their names. An even more distracting thought would occur at just he same time: why are we so attached to our names to begin with?
Being one of the first words our infant minds learns to comprehend a sense of self, we are attached to the normalcy of hearing it pronounced properly, even with a derivative or nickname is preferred over the long, proper name: Kitty instead of Katherine or Sandy in place of Alexander. Growing up where it felt like I was the only Kyle in the world (Dune‘s MacLachlan and Clint Eastwood’s son were still abstractions in the 1980s), hearing someone call me Carl or Chris just seemed like a simple mistake. No identity-denying drama involved. As I started teaching in Japan, it seemed like every classroom I entered contained at least three students with names that I had no concept of as a name, let alone a clue how to properly pronounce. I appreciate their patience with my stilted interactions, and came to appreciate that I had become Kairu-sensei. One bewildered elementary student once wondered out loud why my parents had named me after a frog (kaeru).
The world was technologically changing during that small gap in time between 2005 and 2008, with YouTube, Facebook, Skype, Netflix, and the iPhone as the building blocks that eventually created social media as we know it today. There was more flexibility to create one’s identity on a profile, but once the name stuck, there was less tolerance for those people who got it wrong, deliberately misinterpreting who one is, as Mr. Pitt experiences in the reaction of offended acquaintances not willing to help him out with a context to remember their name. Similarly, the classrooms that I would be visiting back in Canada had an increased number of students with unique variations on common names, and a lot less patience than their Japanese counterparts. In some cases, students leapt at the chance to tell me the correct way to pronounce their name before I could check them as present on the roll call.
There is a well-known Zen Buddhist koan that asks a student to show the master the original face before one was born. Like many koans, there is no easy answer, most likely no answer at all, but thinking through the problem reveals a moment of introspection. It reveals that everything changes, identities shift and yet life goes on. To be able to see someone and recognize a part of them that they currently are not is an underappreciated habit, probably second nature for the students in Japan (unless their classrooms have become egocentric shaming sessions as the one in Canada have become). Perhaps Brad’s latest adventure in a highly-stylized version of Japan in his soon-to-be-released blockbuster Bullet Train has shown that kinder face, allowing his otherwise nameless character to adapt the codename Ladybug. Or as another favourite line from Japanese cinema explains:
“…without your name, who would Hiromasa be?” Seimei teases.