Face Blindness and Emotion in social structure

Doyle Saylor djsaylor at mindspring.com
Sun Dec 22 14:36:07 MST 2002

Hello All,
The following essay was prepared for Pen-L originally but I think of
interest from a left point of view in culture.  The purpose of this essay is
to take a disability perspective toward social structure, to look at how the
social structure functions in terms of how emotions are communicated, to
suggest how this directly affects various aspects of culture, for example;
motion pictures, video games, email, multi-media, list serves etc.

Disability often testifies to how our social structure performs both for
those who can and especially those who can't.  Face blindness is a rare
condition in which someone whose fusiform face area in the right Temporal
Lobe fails to 'see' the difference between one face and the next.  To
understand directly what written words can't do compared to seeing a face I
have prepared an analysis with the help of a disability of just what it
means to communicate with feelings and with words alone.

The importance of facial expression is clear enough to sighted people when
they use faces in their personal relationships.  If your family scowls at
you what does that mean?  We aren't so clear when it comes to the written
word what exactly the word does and what the face does.  We seem clear
enough that we can use a word phrase to say one is afraid.  Do those words
really convey that information?  Let's look at face blindness.

Here are key elements that affect how well information is carried in words:
    A). Knowing who said the words.
    B). Seeing the motion of a smile.
    C). The time specific feeling, when someone walks by we recognize as
someone we fear, hate, love etc.
    D). Figuring out emotions without the fusiform face area in the
Temporal lobe and takes time and is prone to error.

I will be quoting from several different web sites on Face Blindness or




Considering the numerous discussions of Autistic Economics on Pen-L here are
some interesting quotes about Autism and Face Blindness.

Quoted from the site on Autism and Prosopagnosia,
"Experience of members of The Independent Living mailing list suggests that
propagnosia is especially common in people with autism and Asperger's
Syndrome, but unfortunately, as of yet there have been few scientific
investigations in that direction that we know of."


"Prosopagnosia was first observed and documented several hundred years
before Christ, but it was not named until 1947 by someone named Bodamer. The
condition is considered very rare. The few dozen medical journal articles
about it are considered to be very scant, considering there are shelves upon
shelves of books on autism in the library in comparison.

This information is highly relevant to understanding the practical use of
written words and the vast misconception of what anyone can get from writing
alone.  Yet we have little consideration in our culture of what exactly is
missed in written accounts.  Instead we continue to labor under the theory
that the rational argument is the goal of communications.  There is no sense
in 'rational' of a purpose to feeling about the words that pour onto the
written page.

We are missing as the list above tells us the sense of immediacy of time and
space that human brains evolved to work within.  Our social system utterly
depends upon putting words down someplace on paper or electronic form like
squirrels placing nuts in storage throughout a landscape and then going back
to those words if we can't remember the details of what we read, and
retrieving the nuggets of brainwork for use in the social framework we have
created around a written culture.  A written culture that cannot convey
emotion via words in exactly the sense that face blindness affects someone
with that disability.

Face Blindness directly shows what is lost in writing systems in carrying
emotional information.  For a Face Blind person,

Quoting Bill Choisser in his site above,

" When someone communicates how he feels, most of the time he will choose to
do so with facial expressions or by tone of voice. Research has shown that
when people can both see and hear each other, they will rely on facial
expressions and tone of voice to communicate over ninety percent of their
emotions. Less than ten percent of the time do they communicate their
feelings by using words."


" It is no wonder, then, that most people get another person's emotions from
the face, which is the same spot they are looking at to ascertain identity.
How convenient, that we can save time by getting both of these vital pieces
of information by looking at precisely the same place! Well, let's not
seriously believe this happened by chance. It is so important that we get
both pieces of information quickly that mankind probably evolved that way."


"Change, or motion is an important ingredient in pulling emotion data out of
the identity data. The cracking of a smile means that smiling is the emotion
right then! A frozen smile, on the other hand, is not as significant, and
can only be used to infer that a smile belongs somewhere in the recent past
of the event unfolding.

So what we have are two sources of identifying someone - the visual image of
their face and the sound of their voice, plus two sources of identifying
their emotions - the change in, or motion of, the visual image of their face
and the change in, or fluctuation of, the sound of their voice.

What all this means, of course, that the brain is primed to extract
someone's emotions from the same place that we extract their identity, and
in particular, the motion or change of those inputs is particularly sought
out for emotional evaluation."

In public culture we all know how much emotions seem to affect what is
written by various individuals.  The well known conflict between Steven
Pinker, and Stephen J. Gould on sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology is
a perfectly good example.  Why don't we understand what to do to harness
producing brainwork better?  Is writing supposed to be a singular activity
in which someone sits by themselves at a desk?  Is not language always a
social activity.  Is not a word meant to be shared?  Then too aren't
feelings the markers of the shape of society?  I love you, and you don't
love me.  How intrinsic that is to the kernel relationships.  One person
feels and the other doesn't.  How can those two be together?

Of course movies show us faces.  So we have much more explicit information
about what is really being felt.  How ambiguous is that of course?  The
actor is merely pretending to be in the "Lord of the Rings".  In fact the
only way we can judge how real someone else's feelings are is to share with
them.  And movies are not meant to be shared, meaning not meant to be used
in a language like way.

Let me emphasize this as big as I can, we must


The feelings to know the reality of how someone else feels.   Having read a
little bit about face blindness you have a sense when you can't see the face
that the critical issues of specific time and space does matter to
communication.  This vast continent of communication has been lost to the
written word.  But suppose we used computing tools to re-add emotional
content to words long ago written?  Do we want to read words from warriors
long ago that were meant to frighten an enemy?  The terror meant to be sent
via chilling words to scare us into submission?

We take of words a certain neutrality as an advantage.  We can use them
without the formidable ties that emotions have to specificity.  In
scientific sense we have a sense that theories are provisional.  That
today's paradigm can be overthrown by tomorrows upstart.  The theory holds
together because we feel and use feelings to do brainwork.  That emotions
are plastic and social structure can be supported on a global scale in which
emotions seem so relentlessly tied to the immediate moment and place.

But is that a likely outcome of computerized communication?  Going back to
my analogy we could add emotional content into words.  An actor can speak
the lines of "Hamlet" and re-interpret the lines suitable to a specific
time.  Instead what makes sense is that a sharing process in society with an
emotion based system recognizes how important it is to doing any work to
feel.  To share feeling with others in a way that reflects truly belonging
and a true sense of inner power in the social connection whether on a
village level or gigantic global level.  That is what a scientific paradigm
reflects the commonality of social power that a given emotional glued
together theory holds for a group of people.  The inner workings of how to
construct an emotional connectivity of brainwork that includes the capacity
to manufacture via software agents artificial emotional content to words is
the capacity to build social structure more emotionally more deeply than
mere human bodies can provide.  Human bodies are tied to how many people we
can know personally.  But global networks can be structured to billions of
people in a system well beyond what we can personally know about anyone.

Returning to the Disability metaphor of rights, where someone can't see
emotion in a face they can do brainwork anyway.  They might need a system
that provides them information appropriate to their ability.  But they can
do important brainwork without seeing the face.  Exactly in the sense that
words have served the rise of Capitalsim.  The fact that we use faces as the
main identity point and emotion channel between us does not mean we can't
re-design that mechanism to more suitable structures for a global structure
of emotion that permanently ends racist social relationships.  Words have
served humanity well despite the severe distortion of not seeing emotion via
the face in words.  We have a sense however flawed that in the Pen-L list
that it is not necessary to fight one and the other in flame wars, but to
seek some sort of way to support the depth of brainwork.  The depth cannot
be plumbed without an emotional structure that fully supports the brainwork.
Basically an end to the long lasting 'rationalist' theory that words can be
taken as neutral.  And a determined effort to build consciously an emotional
structure to communications that reflects a socialist view.  Equality, an
end to racism, sexism, a full incorporation and integration of disability
rights into the social framework of a global system.
Doyle Saylor

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