So, do you also have this annoying visual glitch of being completely impossible to remember your crush’s face no matter how hard you try?
Sure, you can recognize them the moment you see them in person on Instagram, but you know… somehow, when you think about them, you can’t visualize their face completely.
Why is that? Well, neuroscientists don’t know exactly why, but we sure know people have this cognitive bug more often than not.
The day before I’m supposed to be meeting Caroline for a drink, I develop all the textbook symptoms of a crush: a nervous stomach, long periods spent daydreaming, and an inability to remember what she looks like.
I can bring back the dress and the boots, and I can see her bangs, but her face is blank, and I fill it in with some anonymous rent-a-cracker details…
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
It isn’t prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” in which one’s ability to recognize faces is impaired — generally, people who can’t remember their crush’s face can still recognize it on sight. It was made famous in Oliver Sacks’ book The Mind’s Eye, where he revealed that he is face-blind himself.
There is even a form of inherited weakness in this brain region where whole families can be notoriously bad at recognizing faces, including each other.
It’s not aphantasia, a condition where one can’t conjure a mental image of anything. Maybe you can’t picture your crush at this very moment, but I’m sure you can visualize a raccoon eating a red apple.
So, while this crush issue remains unsolved, let’s dive into how the brain truly recognizes people.
We are generally so good at recognizing faces that we tend to see faces even when there aren’t any, such as in the random patterns in bread, clouds, or rock formations on the surfaces of other planets, which is a side-effect of having a brain specialized for this function.
Part of the brain dedicated to recognizing faces is called the fusiform face area (FFA). It is positioned in the temporal lobe(s) of your brain found roughly in the area behind your ears.
For instance, If you have had a brain injury that damages FFA, you won’t be able to recognize people by their faces, even if you have perfectly normal vision. You’ll recognize them by their voice for example.
According to neuroscience, the brain goes through three separate stages to decide if it recognizes a face.
A team from University College London says the first assesses a face’s physical aspects. Navigation!
The second decides if it is known or unknown.
If it is a recognizable face, the third part puts a name to it.
So, as Alexandra Molotkow says in her Substack piece maybe what seems like a glitch is not a glitch at all. We might be asking our brains to do something they just can’t do: pull together a coherent visual idea of someone we haven’t looked at very much but think the world of, regardless.
„People look different all the time. To get a good sense of someone’s face requires familiarity, which is exactly what crushes lack. The experience of crush-caliginosity — I think this is the last time I’ll be using that term — nicely captures the basic absurdity of crushing itself: devoting a huge amount of mental energy to very little mental material.
One of the responses to the question Why can’t I remember the face of the guy that I like? on Quora came from Xeno Rasmusson, a neuroscientist, who pointed out that it’s equally hard to visualize people whose faces are very familiar.
“Even now, with my wife of 15 years just behind me, it’s hard to render a clear & accurate image of her face in my mind’s eye. In my defense, in nearly 20 years, I’ve seen her face change over time but also make all sorts of emotional expressions in short order. Which version of her face would I try to imagine?”
Does any of this resonate with you, too?