What’s in a face

Just as I have a system for recalling words, I now have one for faces. For words I do a mind search. As others do, I scan through the alphabet focusing on each letter in turn looking for those that best match the starter letter of the lost word. I then run through second letters and go on until the whole word appears, which usually it does.

For faces, I have developed a similar approach but here I think of it as ‘morphing’.

Last week there was a lot of morphing to be done. Problems arose because I was meeting people I had not seen in decades and I needed to remind myself of who they were or what they were like. For me it is important to re-establish such historic links and so put the relationship into some sort of context. Until that is done, there is something missing.

We are probably morphing all the time as we unconsciously recognise people from the past. When immediate recognition fails, I go through the process in a more laboured fashion. After explaining what I am up to, I gaze at the person’s face, both at the individual parts and at the whole (pattern, shape, lilt), and let the image drift out of focus, as one does when deciphering ‘magic pictures’. When it comes to the parts, I concentrate particularly on the mouth, next come the eyes, nose, forehead and the ears. Others would probably home in on the eyes first, some even the nostrils. In a radio interview some years ago a famously short man told how he found nostrils to be particularly revealing, adding how mean he found Mrs Thatcher’s.

The recent morphing session started in earnest on the Friday when my wife and I visited friends whose children we had not seen for years. We last met Will when he was around 7, now he is 37. With morphing, his smiley mouth, dreamy eyes and prominent ears soon reappeared – job done. Next came Jessie, now 39 and last seen when she was around 10. Despite some hard morphing I failed until suddenly she threw back her head and laughed, and there she was.

The next day brought a bigger challenge. I was faced with a cohort of 150 or so medical students at a reunion dinner of those graduating in the 1980s. Although now in their early 40s to 50s, some I recognised immediately. The faces of the consultant orthopedic surgeon, the GP principal, two senior psychiatrists and a doctor who had now given it all up to look after the family were all essentially unchanged. As too was that of the consultant anesthetist whom I first met when she was 17 and I spoke to her A-level class on a recruiting mission.

A few faces were unrecognizable and morphing offered either nothing or muddle.

In one instance morphing took me back to student X ,and despite my attempts to convince him otherwise, he insisted on remaining student Y. For others the process worked well. It worked for one GP – once I had morphed out her long ringlets, for a second whose round face, smile and questioning expression were the clues, and for a consultant in neonatal care it was the mouth again that gave the game away. And there were many more.

But morphing has its awkward moments. Early in the evening I went over to three doctors as they chatted before the meal. After explaining morphing, they challenged me to see how well it worked (typical students!). I morphed the first in a few moments, the second defied me completely.

The third seemed familiar and I found myself looking at her quizzically. After a few seconds she tactfully clarified the position. “I am your GP,” she said.

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