Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ability to catch a likeness & inherent facial recognition

I read an article in New Scientist about super-recognizers. People with a freakish ability to recognize faces. Useful in law enforcement, such as matching blurry survalence screencaptures to mug shots or recognizing persons of interest despite their wearing a Mets cap and purple lipstick.

While I am not a super-recognizers, I suspect I am closer to the top of that bell curve. When my husband and I attend events or watch TV I'm constantly recognizing people and he can't. But he frequently recognizes voices while I rarely can.

I've been drawing portraits a long time. I love looking at faces. People, including other artists, will  say it must have taken me years of practice to be able to capture a likeness. I nod in agreement, not wanting to hurt their feelings, but it just isn't so. Yes, it has taken time to get comfortable with the materials, such as watercolor, ink, pastels, and now digital. What I don't tell them is this, I was able to do it the first time I tried.

When I was nine years old my mother, at one time a dabbler in art, sat me down and put a pad of good charcoal paper in my lap and handed me a stick of charcoal. Up to this point I'd only drawn the usual princesses and horses with crayons in a style that would be universally recognized as uninfluenced by observation of reality.

"Draw me" she said.

I remember that first portrait so clearly, gauging the widths and planes, the way some parts of her face seem to repeat themselves in style—a signature pointiness in ears and nose wings...what I now think of as fractals of facial development. I am back in our den, in our fine small house in West Hartford, the scratch and slur of my lines echoing my mother's face.

20 minutes later she demanded to see what I'd done.
She looked startled and then pleased. It looked like her. After that, I got extra art lessons.

I don't know if this ability is a genetic gift or oddity of development, but my father, Elof Carlson, as a young man, before he pursued a career as a geneticist, was able to draw portraits that also captured a likeness.

Unlike the super recognizers I do forget faces and almost always names. I'll walk by someone and get a flash of recognition...if you see me on the street and I'm staring at you while alternately looking off to my left it isn't sleepwalking or lack of meds, I know I know you and cannot approach because your name is a blank. However, your nose or chin will stay with me, until next time then.

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