A 100% certain sighting – what makes a face interesting?

I have had the unexpected opportunity to see Jean properly at close range for the first time in something like ten years, and I’m thoroughtly disgusted that she doesn’t look any older. There’s no doubt that I’ve changed for the worse. I’d like to know her secret. Jean is notable because her face, and to be completely correct, her personality as manifested in her face and voice and typical expressions, is the concurrent in a particularly interesting type of synaesthesia which I experienced on a few occasions over a period of a few months a couple of years ago. It was an interesting type of synesthesia because it appears to be a mixture of synaesthesia and face recognition, experienced by a person (me) who gets face memory test scores in the range consistent with being a super-recognizer. I believe I am the first and the only person in the world to describe such an experience, which I gave the title of The Strange Phenomenon. Jean is working in pretty-much the same job for the same large organization that she was working in ten-odd years ago. Maybe she had always been doing shifts here and there somewhere. The day I met her was a chance deviation from my usual routine in my usual neighbourhood.

This sighting has given me the opportunity to answer a few questions about Jean’s appearance and The Strange Phenomenon that have been unanswered for a couple of years. Firstly, Jean does have a face that has many features that look the same as John’s face (John’s face is the inducer or trigger of the particular type of synaesthesia). Jean’s colouring, nose, lips and ears do look similar to John’s. Both wear glasses and short hair all the time and both have uninteresting, drab eyes. John is always clean-shaven. Despite these similarities, she isn’t John’s female double, as I think their faces have quite different shapes. When I saw Jean I didn’t think “Wow, looks like John!”, I thought “Wow, it’s Jean, and the ***** hasn’t aged!” The sight of Jean’s face did not trigger any type of synaesthesia, and it did not trigger any memory or vision of John’s face. I can’t completely rule out the possibility that The Strange Phenomenon might work as a two-way type of synaesthesia, because I didn’t stare at Jean’s face for long, and I think The Strange Phenomenon takes some time to be set off. It requires a quite focused attention, which is I think pretty typical of synaesthesia.

I now think it is plausible that The Strange Phenomenon happens solely because from a certain angle Jean and John’s faces look similar in a sufficient number of ways that it triggers some critical threshold of visual recognition (and be reminded that it only happened when John’s face was viewed under specific conditions from a 45 degree angle). Perhaps there is more to it than that, because there is still the question of why my mind would retain a visual memory for several years (with amazing clarity) of the face and manner of a woman who was nothing more to me than a person occasionally seen at the other side of a service desk. I’ve previously explained that I find John’s face more interesting than most and it holds my attention, and I’d say the same about Jean’s. She is one of the many quite unfortunate people who are born with facial features that can subtly give the false impression of a particular mood by virtue of the innate shape of one or more features. Sometimes people with heavy or oddly-shaped eyebrows have a look of gravity that isn’t really a reflection of their true mood or personality. Jean happens to have a nose and mouth that give her face a somewhat mean or angry look about it, and I think this aspect of her face frequently unconsciously draws attention from the parts of the brain that monitor facial expressions, and then it is up to the conscious mind to correct the feeling that I might be in the presence of a person in an unsympathetic mood. I think there are some faces which play merry hell with the various face processing modules in the brain, playing one off against the other, creating ambiguity and uncertainty, and I think this might be why some faces are so much more interesting than others. Well, I find them interesting.

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