Recognizing faces

I’ve been reading Oliver Sacks again.  I love reading him.  He makes me feel so… uh, human.  So, I was reading a chapter in The Mind’s Eye about prosopagnosia, which is the inability to recognize faces.  In the chapter, he writes about the development of the ability to recognize faces, which comes quite young.  In fact, he mentions a study that shows the general ability to recognize individual faces comes very young.  Babies can recognize individuals even of other species.  However, by nine months of age, this ability becomes more specialized and the ability to recognize faces is narrowed to the type they are exposed to most.  Sacks speaks of the implications of this regarding race, mentioning that a Chinese child raised in a Chinese environment may feel that whites, Blacks, etc. look alike.  Same for whites regarding Asians, Blacks, etc.

It seems there is an innate and presumably genetically determined ability to recognize faces, and this capacity gets focused in the first year or two, so that we become especially good at recognizing the sorts of faces we are likely to encounter.  Our “face cells,” already present at birth, need experience to develop fully.” – Oliver Sacks, The Minds Eye

When I read this, I immediately thought of the implications for transracial adoptees.  Our adopted kids are being raised in primarily white environments, around white faces.  I have often seen transracially adopted adults write that they don’t “feel like” their race.  They feel white.  Hence, the terrible banana (white on the inside, yellow on the outside) or Oreo (white on the inside, black on the outside) analogies.  Yet, how true they may be… even on a very cellular level.

I’ve heard white people say that all Asians look alike or all Blacks look alike and I’ve just nodded my head (as I believe they do look alike to them) or said, “not to me, they don’t.”  Because they don’t to me.  Why?  Because of exposure.  I didn’t have a lot of exposure to non-whites in my first nine months of life.  It came much later, but I came to know many.  So, while there may be truth in what Sacks says, I believe that these perceptual capacities can grow, at any time through exposure.  I know they have for me.  This doesn’t take away from the banana/Oreo experience for transracial adoptees, as that isn’t just about facial recognition, but I do think there is great capacity for growth in that area, simply through exposure.  It does reinforce the idea that transracially adopted children do need many role models who look like them in order to be comfortable with their faces and in their skin.

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One Response

  1. I have 2 aquaintences, both adults over 50 and both suffer from this disorder. One to a greater extent than the other but he doesn’t even recognize his children unless they first introduce themselves to him. When I see him I make sure I tell him who is hugging him while I am hugging him.
    The other person, I have seen him recognize many people but some he just searches for their names somewhere in his head.
    I wonder why he remembers me but not her. There are no racial differences. It’s so very strange.

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