The Ape Under the Hairstyle
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I’m almost sure that my last haircut improved my health.
Not in the ways one might expect. I wasn’t nesting lice or vermin. It wasn’t a profoundly dangerous hairstyle, likely to get caught in industrial equipment and drag me down with it.
But it made me look like the me I was used to.
And whacking it down to the scalp — which I did, in a slight fit of “oh, hell with it” — was more of a change than I at first expected.
Face-Blindness for the Rest of Us
There’s a condition called prosopagnosia, which some scientists estimate affects almost one in forty people. (I find this hard to believe, but it’s a “spectrum disorder,” much worse for some people than others.) You know the people who say “I’m not so good with names, but I never forget a face?”
Well, people with prosopagnosia do not say that. They do forget faces. In fact, they never really recognize them in the first place.
For most of us, faces are a very special part of our visual reality, pulled from our vast data-stream of visual inputs and given preferential treatment by an area of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus. You know how your smart phone has facial recognition software that puts a little box around people’s faces and makes sure to adjust focus and lighting to protect and emphasize them, versus other parts of the image?
Well, your brain — in particular, your fusiform gyrus — is constantly doing the same thing.
Unless, that is, you have prosopagnosia — which can be congenital (the fusiform gyrus never adequately learns to do its job) or acquired (brain damage bangs it up, and afterwards facial recognition takes a dive). Prosopagnosics, as they’re called, have brains that function much more like an old school camera with no on-board computer, treating all parts of the visual field the same, not playing favorites with faces at all.
This is generally a bad thing. Egalitarian ideals like “all visual elements are created equal” don’t really work so well in practice. Not with vision.
Prosopagnosics, depending on the severity of their condition, range from having a bad memory for faces, to literally being unable to recognize themselves in the mirror. They compensate by identifying friends and loved ones by secondary cues, like their manner of dress, their voice, or how they move.
Now, it should be mentioned — I don’t have prosopagnosia.
We’re All Icons
If you’re not a prosopagnosic, when you first meet someone, you’re aggressively cataloging details about their face, taking notes for later (unconsciously, at least), and drawing inferences about what you might expect about them, based on their facial idiosyncrasies.
Like all stereotypes, these guesses might not be borne out by further real-world data, but think about what comes to mind if the face of someone you meet is characterized by…
- Ruddy-colored cheeks with visible capillaries
- A deep, caramel-colored tan
- Strong vertical creasing in the forehead, above the nose
- Orange lipstick
In each case, you’ll probably take these as personality-clues as to what you might expect from a person. (This is especially true in cases where the clues seemingly disagree with each other and imply a conscious choice — like a friend I have who is in his late 40s, but dyes his hair almost a canary-yellow “blonde.”)
But as we get to know individuals better, personal experience trumps facially-derived guesswork, and (again, for non-prosopagnosics) the faces of people we know come to represent our body of knowledge about that individual rather than the type of person we’d expect, based on their looks.
In other words, we recognize people’s faces as icons for the people we know, rather than advertisements for whom we might expect.
The Mirror Works Both Ways
The statement above is true even when the face in the mirror is us.
I was so used to seeing myself looking, well… the way I normally look, that a massive hairstyle change* was enough to momentarily shatter the visual iconography I had for myself.
- Full hair-eradication, more accurately. Think Kobe Bryant or Bruce Willis.
This isn’t to say that I had any “Who am I?” identity crisis following my haircut. Very much the opposite. It was a “Who is he?” moment.
Later in the afternoon on the day of my haircut (and the initial shock had worn off), I was doing a workout. I had a mirror nearby and caught a glimpse of myself — shirtless and now completely bald — and for a moment I didn’t recognize myself. I knew it was a mirror, but it looked like not me.
Honestly, it was reminiscent of all the prison movies where the hero gets captured and has his head shaved and then is hosed down to de-louse him. When those scenes happen in the movies, we’re always struck with the thought “wow, they’ve stripped him down to his animal self.”
And sure enough, with my visual icon-of-self disrupted, that’s what I saw in the mirror: the animal chassis of me, not my well-worn identity.
And that is why I think the haircut improved my health. Or will, anyway…
It’s Good To Think Of Yourself As Meat, Sometimes.
Western society has a long and confused history with the Mind-Body Problem.
I’m not going to dive into the details here (but if you’re interested, there are about 10,000 books on the subject), except to say that as a rule, people tend to fall into two opposing camps:
- Those who exult in the mind (often abstracted into the “ego” or “identity” or “immortal soul”) and view the body as unfortunate-but-necessary baggage.
- Those who reject the artificial, illusory mind/body distinction and encourage us to think of the two holistically, for the improvement of each — er, it. (See? Everyday language gets tricky when you commit yourself to this stance.)
Normally I find myself siding with the second camp. The “it’s all a closed loop; physiology affects the mind; and the mind’s choices feed back into our physiology, and so on” position.
This makes good, solid sense to me.
I can see where the fusiform gyrus — so marvelous in its function — creates a built-in logical fallacy for us.
We see ourselves (using our objective visual system) and because of our tendency to iconize the people we know, what comes to mind is our self (either our identity/soul, or our “holistic self” — either of which amounts to the same thing, in practice).
We look in the mirror and see the psychosocial aspects…
- Do I look sexy for so-and-so?
- Will this suit make me look impressive for such-and-such occasion?
- Do I look older than the me from last year?
…and 99 times out of 100, the identity-considerations leap front-and-center and distract us from thinking about the hundred-odd pounds of primate staring back at us.
If we thought about that primate, we might ask…
- How is this specimen?
- If I were an alien, going to the galactic pet store to buy a human pet for my alien kid, would I pick this one?
- Is he going to be fun to play with? Strong for work? Lively? Tasty?
Catching that unrecognized me in the mirror, I had a flashing moment where I didn’t see my identity, I saw the body I inhabit — and that brief instant was a powerful reminder.
Pour Your Foundation.
Whichever end of the Mind-Body Problem you find yourself siding with, it’s the body that’s the physical substrate of our existence.
To put that less nerdily:
“If you don’t take care of your body, where will you live?”
- Somebody said this before me, but the speaker’s name is lost to history.
I’m like everyone else; 99.9% of the time I’m caught up in ego-related concerns — the things I want to do, be, see, experience. And the maintenance of the meat-package that I come in — things like brushing my teeth — mostly seem like annoying impositions on my goals.
How many more inventions might have come from Edison if he hadn’t had to brush his teeth twice a day?
Could posterity have a few more Shakespeare plays if the Bard hadn’t had to use the loo?
And yet, it’s probably the opposite that’s true. Maintenance work on our physical selves is a short-term loss, long-term gain. (Absurd but true: If Shakespeare had never gone to the restroom, he’d have been in too much pain to do any writing.)
What resulted for me from my moment of non-self-recognition is this: The thinking me is going to give a little more time, effort, and attention to the care and feeding of his animal chassis.
Sure, the animal-you is easy to forget about. You can ignore him for a long, long time with little consequence; he’s slow to complain. But eventually it will be he who is the primary determinant of how far you can go.
And that is a fact worth recognizing.