No Eye for Beauty

Let me set the stage with a visual here:

Flight attendant: “Would you like a copy of People magazine to read?”
Me: “Er, no thank you. Do you have Scientific American or Popular Mechanics?”

Why on earth would I want to read People magazine? I don’t know who most of those people are, even though they’re supposed to be famous actors or beautiful models or important politicians. My teenage daughter says that the same famous actor was in both the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and I’ll have to take her word for it; I certainly can’t tell! Furthermore, I don’t care about fashion models or makeup. Although I understand why others do, from a strictly intellectual (anthropological) basis: celebrities are important figures in the greater tribe, therefore it behooves us to be able to recognise them.

Among the faceblind there is the concept of “Gorbachev effect” – even the faceblind person can recognize Mikhail Gorbachev because of the distinctive port-wine stain birthmark on his head. (Well, assuming that the guy isn’t wearing a hat …) It’s much easier to recognize someone who is highly divergent from the mean. The more striking people are often either “ugly” in some way, or very distinctive from the local group by virtue of ethnicity or body feature.

This may be one reason why I gravitate towards environments such as graduate school with all the international students, or special education with all of the physical differences. Unfortunately, identification is by distinguishing characteristic — one Indian woman among fifty very “vanilla” North Americans stands out, as does one boy with Down’s Syndrome in a regular classroom. Put her in a family wedding party or him in a Special Olympics tournament, then to my horror I find that they have suddenly disappeared from my visual horizon and I can no longer find “my” person by facial exception. Then I must rely on the slower and less certain factors of gait, voice, mannerisms, or overall body form.

In studying animal behavior, Ron Prokopy came up with the idea of a “supernormal stimulus”, meaning a behavioral sign stimulus that is larger-than-life, something even better and more exciting. For an entomology example, when controlling apple flies we can hang a sticky-coated red ball in an apple tree that still has small, green fruits on it. The apple fly females see this ball that is larger and redder than all the other fruits, and are (fatally) attracted to it as an optimal resource for laying their eggs.

People who are considered to be exceptionally beautiful exhibit a kind of supernormal stimulus: their features are more optimal by being more regular and symmetric than the average person’s. Their features are not just normal exemplars (models) of what a desirable human should look like; they are supernormal, hence they are supermodels.

The ultimate causality for being attracted to “beautiful” people is that even, normal features suggest both good genes and good health. Even though there are various fads among cultures and time periods about what is considered to be “sexy” or “attractive”, there are still some basic qualities that are universally perceived as beautiful because they suggest a healthy, young adult that would be a good mate choice.

From a proximate standpoint, the faceblind person may prefer the faces of people who are distinctive, because they can be more easily recognized, and thus are associated with less stress of identification, and because they increase the likelihood of repeated identification. As you might expect, faceblindness plays hell with dating. (It also has more insidious effects, such as playing hell with one’s ability to network on the job scene — even the person that one can eventually learn to identify on the job won’t necessarily be identifiable in another time and place, plus the faceblind person simply doesn’t build up that large number of interpersonal connections that the neurotypical person does.)

My husband is not extremely different in appearance, albeit when dating he had a beard and wore his hair longer than most men at the time. Alas, he no longer does, and when he’s barbered in an everyday manner I have mananged to lose him in plain sight multitudinous times in our 25 years of marriage. When I misplace him yet again, I stop to try and remember what he was wearing, which is usually a blue shirt (he is very fond of such) but unfortunately so are hundreds of other people. While otherwise focused on taking photographs of plants at a botanic garden, I eventually realised that I’d been absentmindedly tracking the wrong “person in a blue shirt and khaki shorts” (a surprisingly common subspecies of Homo sapiens — even the male of the couple we were visiting was dressed identically, so the guys appeared twinned). Although I can spot a single Viola pedatifida in a prairie, I can’t find my husband in a crowd, so I had to call him on his mobile to arrange a meeting location, whereupon he naturally spotted me first and semaphored dramatically so I could notice him standing there 50 feet away. And so it goes!

In smaller environments, I listen for him, for his asthmatic breathing pattern and his distinctively heavy tread. It’s a good thing that he can recognise me, because he’s hard of hearing, and besides, I have what others have described as an alarmingly light tread (I “sneak up on” them) when I’m not clumsily crashing into objects.

Although there is an innate preference for certain kinds of symmetric beauty among all humans, it would be interesting to see if developmental prosopagnosics are able to distinguish among sets of faces those that are generally considered to be more attractive, and if they are personally more attracted to distinctive faces than those that are generally considered to be more attractive in the normal or supernormal sense. The further purpose to such a line of enquiry would be to explore how much of the concept of “beauty” is innately bound to the process of facial integration and recognition!

Personally I suspect that most faceblind people could identify someone as being classically pretty, but would have different qualifiers on whom they personally find attractive.



  1. Katharina said,

    8 February 2011 at 14:24

    I almost never classify people as ugly when I first meet them. On the contrary, I find I am attracted to people who are ‘different’ and thus easy to identify. As soon as I think about it, I realize that what I have here is an ugly person, but it doesn’t reduce my attraction to them.

  2. Ettina said,

    31 March 2008 at 23:14

    In volunteering programs with disabled people in which certain volunteers are assigned to work with specific people fairly consistently, I usually recognize the volunteers by who they are with.
    The only time I’ve confused disabled people together is with a few DS boys around the same age who also acted similar. Even with autistics, who mostly have normal physical features, each person has unique mannerisms combined with the usual variation in physical appearance and it’s enough that I can easily tell them apart.

  3. Catana said,

    10 January 2007 at 23:18

    I only recently discovered that I’m mildly faceblind, and every once in a while interesting implications pop up. Maybe it’s why I’ve always found older men more interesting than young ones (when judging by looks). Younger men (and women) have none of the experience and age lines that make older ones interesting and easier to distinguish. And the baby fat that persists into the twenties is another thing that tends to make people look alike. Give me roman noses, and craggy appearance any day.

  4. 3 January 2007 at 22:07

    I have to admit I had plenty of faceblind moments at the Uta Frith Festschrift, as people who have met me at other conferences were coming up to me and reminding me of that, and I having to admit that I did not recognise them. In fact Yesterday SBC who had arrived early, said “Hello Larry” to me, and I replied (with difficulties even pronouncing the word “Its a good job at least one of us is not prosopagnosic” as I recognised his voice more than his features.

    Fortunately at such events one can get by, by badge reading when one is looking for someone in particular.

    I know it must seem rude of me sometimes, to ask such bizarre things as I did of person whose badge I caught, but whose face was meaningless
    “I think I caught your badge, do you know me?” and on the confirmation replying “I thought we had met before” and that is the guy who is responsible for the AWARES on line conference no less.

  5. Kassiane said,

    1 January 2007 at 23:30

    I’m faceblind too, and find MYSELF to be fairly plain (because I look at myself every day, it wasn’t till someone ELSE pointed out that my eyes have an unusual slant and my head is all tiny and my proportions are different like mad that I realized I don’t look like everryone else) so I made a point to look different intentionally at conferences and such.

    Like right now I have henna-dyed hair-it leans auburn ANYWAY-and all my presenting clothing makes me look kinda like a hippie…Im 5’4″ and wear a size 6 1/2 to 7 shoe, or purple sandal…I get hats in the toddler department…

    The result accentuates that I dont look OR sound like Im from anywhere in particular. Yeah….

  6. qw88nb88 said,

    1 January 2007 at 23:01

    ::chuckle:: I was very much tickled to find a statue in Venice with feet just like my mother’s. She on the other hand thought that a very strange thing for me to notice and even to report back. Things like variation in feet, nose or ear shape fascinate me (especially the pointy ears sometimes associated with autism), possibly because those are features which people don’t change, unlike hair or eyes.

    I have similarly large feet to yours, but am only 65 in./ 165 cm. tall — most of my shoes are men’s, to accommodate the width. My children have my feet, and I have my father’s — it would be interesting to have a photo of all four pairs at once, but that’s not likely to happen. My hands are equally large (I have to buy men’s medium-size gloves), and men’s small shirts to accommodate my shoulders and arms. Like most prosopagnosic women, I’m not into makeup, and even my haircut is chosen for being highly functional (very short); I choose clothing because some facet appeals to me in a pattern or texture sense, not because it makes me look cute. The upshot of that is a fairly androgenous appearance, especially when it’s cold and I’m wearing a fedodra and leather bomber jacket!

  7. Joseph said,

    1 January 2007 at 22:45

    Another such example (with apologies) is butt size. In Latin America, a woman with a large butt is attractive. Not so much in North America. Of course, there are exceptions, namely Jennifer Lopez.

  8. Ms. Clark said,

    1 January 2007 at 22:21

    I think it’s funny that my face shape with it’s high (native american) cheekbones is considered unattractive by Chinese standards, while high cheekbones were about the only thing one ever heard about supermodels a while back… then they started talking about how women who wanted to look supermodelish needed to starve to stick shape (or be naturally stick shaped) so that they had no breasts and then they had to put in great big implants to get breasts again…. sicko.

    I also have huge ugly feet by Chinese standards. Chinese women really feel sorry for me. :-) I have size 10 (amercian size) feet. They aren’t so big for someone as tall as I am, but the look huge compared to the typical Chinese woman’s foot.

    I have the ultra-ideal “Greek foot” if you look at any painting or sculpture from ancient Greece, Rome or the Renaissance that shows a bare foot, check out the toes. Those are my toes.

    The second toe is longer than the big toe. It’s considered less than ideal to podiatrists, I guess. I don’t imagine there are any guys out there now hunting for a mate with the ideal Greek statuary toes.

  9. Joseph said,

    1 January 2007 at 21:52

    Beauty, like weight, is one of those things where normal/average is considered bad.

    Beauty is a strange thing, because it’s clearly genetic, and you’d expect it to be adaptive (that is, beautiful people should “get lucky” more often, right?) And yet, only a small percentage of the population could be said to be beautiful. I guess it’s one of those things that distribute in the population a certain way, and only one extreme end of the distribution is seen as highly desirable. What constitutes beautiful, and where beautiful starts must be culturally determined to a large extent.

  10. Ms Clark said,

    1 January 2007 at 20:53

    There was a study presented at the IMFAR in 2004 that showed that ASD people (maybe none had face recognition problems, maybe some did) prefered different faces from the typical controls. What I remember was that the men’s faces were less obviously masculine and the women’s faces less obviously feminine… but that’s a sort of vague memory and that’s my interpretation of the “stimuli.”

    Anyway, I remember sitting there thinking, “well, yes, the autistics picked out the better looking people!” The ones the NT’s picked out seemed pretty but blandly pretty.

    I like large, roman noses. The so called aquiline profile. My mom has a nose kind of like that. I got my dad’s nose which, to me, is unattractive. My ex-husband had a sort of Dutch/Belgian ski-slope-ish nose. Not as extreme as Bob Hope’s nose, but along those lines. I thought it was fabulous. Our kids: one got the ex’s nose (my mother-in-law’s nose), one my father-in-law’s nose.

    I’m glad they didn’t get my nose.

    I can’t imagine how you deal with people not being able to recognize them. It sounds very difficult. Dealing with people is hard enough when you CAN recognize them.

    I have a bit of the problem with recognizing Chinese people if I’ve only met them briefly. (yes, very cliché) I speak a little Mandarin and I used to try to talk to Chinese people at the farmer’s market here, but I was pretty sure they’d recognize me again, but I wouldn’t recognize them. Though maybe to them, all tall American brunettes look alike.

    Can you imagine being prosopagnosic in China when everyone wore a Mao jacket and black pants? Of course, all Chinese people do NOT look alike, but you have fewer hair and eye colors to differentiate them, or maybe they notice variations in dark hair color that we don’t.

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