I was happily doing my own little do-gooder thing, bagging up my groceries in my fancy re-usable bags at Trader Joe’s, when the young woman ringing up my groceries said, “I recognize you from Mike’s funeral.” And I looked up at her, and even though I read her name tag, “Mikey,” I didn’t feel badly that I didn’t recognize her from that service. It was a crowded, intense, sorrowful funeral service for a young man, just shy of 30, who had died of serious and terminal mental illness (a topic for a whole other blog.) So she and I were both out of context.
But I talked with her about yes, how hard and sad it had been, and asked her how she knew Mike. She said she had grown up with him, and known him almost her entire life, and how hard it was still, just a few weeks out, and we kept bonding and chatting, and although I wasn’t consciously trying to place her from that day, my brain was hard at work behind the scenes.
Identifying people by their faces is so important to who we are as human beings, our brains have developed a whole separate section just for that – The fusiform gyrus. This part of our brain puts together all the individual facial characteristics to make a whole, so we can know the difference between a stranger and our Uncle Bob, and to know whether or not we’ve seen this person before or not.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that – The question, “Do I know you?” We rely on context cues – I probably would have placed her easily had I met her at the grieving family’s home, instead of on my day off running errands. We rely on verbal cues, the conversation, the connections between us. Some people are brilliant at it and never forget a name or a face, others average, and still others, completely incapable, and suffer from prosopragnosia, which means no one is familiar; everyone seems a stranger, even loved ones, even one’s own children and spouse.
I didn’t recognize Mikey, as I said, because we were at the same very emotional gathering, so right there, our brains were flooded with intense emotions and the struggle to keep them in check. When we’re sad, our amygdala is in control, not our higher functioning prefrontal cortex, and not our hippocampus, where memories are laid down and stored. But why did she recognize me, and me not her?
I was the minister, I was one person standing up in front of a crowd of many, and I was working hard to lead people through a heart-breaking service. My brain literally had no energy or attention left over for new faces to make an impression. It was too busy. I was working too hard. It was too emotional. So she recognized me, but I didn’t recognize her.
Until I walked out of Trader Joe’s, and immediately did a U-turn to go back and say, “I know who you are! You are Mikey! You are the friend who stood up and did a reading!” And it all came flooding back, and I was embarrassed that I had not realized she had a part in the service; she wasn’t just another one of the crowd. And she was quite gracious about it. And I cut myself a break. Because there’s only so much our brains can do at one time, in spite of our desire to multi-task. My brain was attending at the time to what was most important, and remembering everyone’s faces lost out to being present for the family, speaking comforting words, staying calm in the midst of heartache. So cut yourself a break next time you can’t place someone’s face, and be grateful for all those times your brain does it for you effortlessly.