Apr. 14th, 2017

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Spotted in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind: Some People Suffer from Face Blindness for Other Races.You won't be stunned to hear that the study in question was about the failure of white Australians to recognise Asian faces:

"They asked 268 Caucasians [sic] born and raised in Australia to memorize a series of six Asian faces and conducted the same experiment, involving Caucasian faces, with a group of 176 Asians born and raised in Asia who moved to Australia to attend university. In 72 trials, every participant was then shown sets of three faces and had to point to the one he or she had learned in the memorization task. The authors found that 26 Caucasian and 10 Asian participants—8 percent of the collective study population [9.7% of the white people and 5.7% of the Asian people] —did so badly on the test that they met the criteria for clinical-level impairment."
It's not hard to imagine why white people in Australia, where the population is overwhelmingly white, might be less skilled at telling Asian faces apart: we seldom have to bother. Not only are there few Asian faces around, so we don't get much practice, but the consequences of a screw-up are less likely to be serious - not true for an overseas student who fails to recognise their lecturer or tutor. (The other studies mentioned in the SA piece tend to back this up.)

Before Kpop, I'm sure I would have been one of that 9.7%. For a start, I'm not too crash hot at remembering white faces. I once shared a hotel room with someone who, as part of a costume, donned a wig; when she started talking to me in a hallway, it took me long, confused minutes to work out who she was! In TV shows, I persistently confuse white actors and forget their characters' names in TV shows. Thank heavens for Jon or "Game of Thrones" would be incomprehensible. This problem spills over into my writing - I don't know how to describe faces, so I use other descriptions for characters, like their hair or clothing.

Kpop forced me to learn how to tell Asian faces apart. Even now, when I see a photo or a video, my brain whirrs into action. How many boys? Five? That's probably SHINee, then. Next a scan for my favourite member, Taemin. Wait - or is that Onew? I tend to confuse them when they have similar hair. No, look at the width of the mouth, and the size of the eyes - that's Taemin, all right. And there - those cheeks could only belong to Onew.

I'd been doing this quite automatically for a long time when Jon and I happened to sit down and watch the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of Mighty Jack (a Japanese series edited into a movie by Sandy Frank, who also brought you Battle of the Planets). I was startled to realise that my tell-the-Asian-boys-apart neurons had kicked in: I was sitting there memorising which uniformed, short-haired young man was which.

The most interesting thing is, perhaps, the sheer variety of Asian eyes: Minho from SHINee's are large and "double-lidded"; actor Lee Joon-gi's eyes are long; Onew's eyes vanish when he smiles. Looking at fan edits of the band's faces, showing just their eyes, it's simple for me to tell them apart. But I didn't become consciously aware of this until I very recently read Describing Asian Eyes and followed some of the links there.

To sum up, although I think I'm not good at recognising faces in general, I've learned to recognise Asian faces (well, the faces of young Korean men, mostly) as a skill. That bodes well for my ability to remember peoples' faces in real life, and to describe my own characters better.

(One thing I'm not sure of is whether the six faces used in the study were only East Asian. In Australia, this is what we'd usually mean by "Asian" - Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, and so forth.)


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