Sunglasses after dark

My latest hobby seems to be looking online for pictures of people I used to know to remember what they looked like. The good thing is they now look like I remember them. But back in 2006 my epilepsy began acting up something fierce and I woke up one morning with my facial recognition zapped away. Think they call that prosopagnosia? Some unpronounceable Greek word anyway. Even faces I knew extremely well looked alien to me, and I could walk right up to people I’d known for years and seen every day and not recognize them till they spoke. I remember looking up people’s pictures–on what I don’t know, this was before Facebook–and they looked so different. Of course, if I tried to see in my mind’s eye how I remembered them there would be a fleeting mental image that would immediately dissolve into nothing. Literally dissolve. There’d be a half second glimpse of their face and then it would just granulate into pixels and then blackness. It was a trip. For the first couple years I was always startled at how different you all looked. Even my wife. And when I spoke to you I’d find my gaze looking at things you never normally notice. Without the usual focus, my eyes would wander as if I were studying a portrait, I’d see your skin–amazing the pores we have–and hair, and facial structure. Ears. Wrinkles. Shaving scars. It was incredibly distracting.

For a while I couldn’t recognize profiles at all, even my brother’s. Some pretty funny shit went down, all of it embarrassing. Not so funny, though, was how suddenly I couldn’t read people. Talk about unnerving. I’d be talking to someone and have no idea how they were reacting. I could not tell if I was bothering them, or boring them, or what. Inevitably, I began avoiding people. Eventually I learned to visually recognize you all in other ways, by your voices, body language, whatever, and I did eventually manage to begin reading you all again, though nowhere nearly as well as I once had. It is funny when you go from being very adept at something to instantly being lousy at it. After a couple years I just got used to it. Though I still avoid people more than I did before. It’s inevitable. As a species we read each others’ faces so well. Indeed, we impart more information with facial expressions than we do speaking. Lose that skill and you’re a little fucked. And mine was a relatively mild case. I wasn’t completely face blind. Some people are.

But now my mind’s eye images seems to match your looks. That’s a relief. Even pictures of people I haven’t seen in years match my memory of them. It’s a significant recovery. I’ve long dreaded a repeat of my bad epilepsy year of 2006, because among other things I didn’t want to go though that prosopagnosia bullshit again. It was really inconvenient. Crippling even. And it was also embarrassing. I took to wearing shades because I realized that people could tell I wasn’t looking at what people normally look at when they are talking to you. Mainly the eyes, I think. You can tell when some idiot is looking at your hair or chin or ears when you are trying to talk to him. So shades helped.

Although there was a downside to wearing shades. Like the time I was walking into work and found myself behind a lady I didn’t recognize. Must be a new employee, I figured. I caught her profile as she slipped in the door ahead of me. Didn’t know who she was, but she was definitely hot. Safely behind my shades I was checking her out. I was forty nine years old and safely behind my sunglasses acting like a high school kid. I watched her walk ahead of me, her hips sliding this way, then that, like dancing a slow salsa. That’s America to me, I thought to myself. What it meant I do not know but I distinctly remember thinking that to myself because suddenly the lady in front of me stopped and turned around. What are you looking at, she asked. I knew that voice instantly. It was the lady I’d worked with for a decade. Probably my closest friend in the whole building. We talked every single day. We’d sat next to each other for years. She was gorgeous, sure, but I had never ogled her once. I worked with her. She was a friend. There are rules about those things.

But unfortunately I hadn’t recognized her by her profile and besides I hadn’t been looking at her face anyway. Suddenly I felt so stupid, like a forty nine year old man caught acting like a high school kid. I’d never been so busted in my life, not even as a teenaged high school kid. But she was also one of the very few people at work who knew about my sudden face blindness. I spluttered an apology that I hadn’t recognized her. I know you didn’t, she said, that’s why you were checking out my ass. The epilepsy had also rendered me with one hell of a stutter, and thoroughly flustered I stammered something inane. You idiot, she said, take off those stupid sunglasses, you’re inside. I shoved them in my pocket. You’re blushing, she said, and cackling a pinay laugh went up the stairs to her desk. Aren’t you coming she asked. I said I’ll take the elevator. My knee, I said. My knee was fine. I just needed a few minutes alone to stop blushing. Sometimes it takes minutes. And then sometimes it takes forever. On my way to the lobby I stopped by the restroom and splashed my face with cold water. It didn’t help. I made my way to the elevator. Just as the doors were closing someone yelled hold that elevator! Half a dozen women got on, still feeling their two martini lunch. I knew all of them. Why are you blushing? the loudest of them asked. What did you do? They started snickering. He probably got busted checking out some babe’s ass! Instantly I flushed crimson again, and you’d think it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. How do women know these things? I tried to say something and stammered.

Mortified, I made a mental note that sunglasses and epilepsy don’t mix.

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Memes and meme theory

There has to be some neurological reason for why people instantly believe Facebook memes. They will even insist that the meme was correct even when shown information  that disproves the meme. So we don’t read memes the way we read, sat, and ordinary Facebook post. We certainly don’t read them the way we read articles or blogs. We retain an element of skepticism when we read something not in a meme. But memes, they are not only believed, but they are believed without question. Somehow, the part of then reading process that takes in the information we read and mulls it over before accepting it–a process that takes a fraction of a second, but it is there, allowing you to tell a lie from fact, a joke from a real story–that process is completely skipped when we look at a meme.

It might be that we read memes like we traffic signs. They come similarly packaged, and we can’t actually edit it or change the letters around, it is a picture of language. As are road signs. We never doubt a road sign. If it says stop we know it means we should stop. If it says merging traffic ahead we know there will be a lane of traffic coming in. If it says no parking we never assume it means we can park there. We just believe. We may not obey, but it doesn’t mean that we deny that what the sign tells us is not true. I’m not sure how that works. I’m not sure why we instantly believe a traffic sign, with no need for reflection, while we find ourselves thinking the traffic laws in the driver’s manual are stupid. But I suspect the reading process for memes and traffic signs are similar. Because most people instantly believe memes, without question. It takes effort to doubt them. None of us who do doubt them began doubting them. We learned to do that, and we are in the minority. And when we do tell people that the memes are wrong, the meme believers will doubt that we are correct. No matter how much information they are shown, they will be skeptical of the actual information presented in a non-meme format–written in a post, say, or presented in a link–and will actually argue that the meme was correct. And that is neurological. That is an automated brain process. That is something very difficult to avoid. A meme–always presented in a picture form, such as jpeg–has an ability to circumvent our critical thinking faculties and become fact in our mind, much as we automatically believe a merging lane ahead sign. Its viral potential is phenomenal because its information is believed, without question, by most people who read it. I remember reading about Dawkins’ meme theory, before these Facebook style memes even existed, and meme theory fell apart because there was no mechanism for transmission. But now, via Facebook, there is a mechanism for transmission. A meme can spread from human brain to human brain via our eye and ability to read language . It can’t be spread to a blind man. It can’t be spread to someone who can’t read, or to someone who can’t read the language in the meme. But it can be spread in picture form–if you rewrote it in text it would not be believed automatically–and will be believed the way traffic signs are believed. There is a way to get people to believe anything they read if it can be put in a picture format. The fact that you can have a meme several hundred words long that is still believed without question in a way an article is not is probably because we read so much more than we ever did before because  we are online so many hours a day and when we are online we are reading constantly. We are just used to more written words now, and as such, we can compartmentalize entire paragraphs into picture-like packets that are looked at the way we read a traffic sign.

The potential for exploitation here is breathtaking, and doubtless it is already happening. Meme theory, long just a nifty idea, a theoretical possibility, can actually happen via Facebook, When we share a meme, we are replicating it in the mind of whoever reads it. It has to be the single fastest way of spreading identical information that there is, and only with discipline can a person learn to read them critically, because memes are designed to be believed exactly as they are written. They are, I suspect, a revolutionary form of spreading information. Probably temporary, eventually people will begun reading them like we read everything else, critically and skeptically. But for now, memes will be spreading world wide, too often sowing misinformation and disinformation and utterly believed by nearly everyone who reads them because the belief is automatic.

Words and pictures

This is one of those incredible photographs that cannot possibly described in writing. It is so frustrating how you can’t recreate what we see in words, and indeed, almost nothing we see requires words to understand. It’s all pre-language. Vision is nearly a billion years old. Language a couple hundred thousand. Written language maybe five thousand years old. The speech and language thing in the brain is new, very primitive, extremely limited. And when I see a picture like this that tells a whole story, and realize that I could spend hours trying to tease out a few sentences that would do the same, I begin to hate photographers. I mean think about it, someone invented a camera less than two centuries ago and within two or three decades unbelievable photos, these perfect images, begin to appear. Iconic things. Hell, when we think of the Civil War we see Matthew Brady’s dead strewn in a field, not any of the word images in thousands and thousands of histories, memoirs, poems, and novels. That was the secret of Ken Burns’ Civil War–the photos that the television camera would play across, giving an illusion of animation to still life. The narrators would recite passages from people who were there, and the theme would swell, fade and disappear, but what we remember are the images. Not the words, we default instead to the ancient vision centers there in the back of the brain. You don’t need to explain anything to those vision centers. It gets it automatically (which is why it is so easy to fool us with trick photography–the vision center believes what it sees). Photos nail us. We have no defense. And I just wrote a couple hundred words trying to say that.

This is why I’m mean to photographers. Not to angels like the one in this picture, though. They can melt your heart.

OURO PRETO, BRAZIL - APRIL 05: A girl dressed as an angel walks home after marching in the annual Easter procession during traditional Semana Santa (Holy Week) festivities on April 5, 2015 in Ouro Preto, Brazil. Holy Week marks Easter celebrations for Catholics and Brazil holds the largest number of Catholics on the planet. Ouro Preto was a colonial mining town founded in the late 17th century and the Semana Santa tradition in Ouro Preto can be traced back to the 18th century Portuguese colonial period. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

“A girl dressed as an angel walks home after marching in the annual Easter procession during traditional Holy Week festivities in Ouro Preto, Brazil.”   (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)