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Face Blindness and Empathy

Bill Choisser

A parent wrote to a face blindness email list: C's teachers tell us that C has one really good friend and two more with whom she will initiate play.  She is very tolerant with these children and will give and take a lot with them.  She is not very tolerant with the other children in the class.  If C falls near one of the kids she doesn't normally play with, she will accuse that child of sticking their foot out and tripping her.  If C falls near one of her friends, she just brushes it off. I suspect that C only recognizes these 3 friends and all the rest are more or less "strangers" to her and she treats them that way.

Does this sound plausible?  We haven't observed any other kids her age (NT) with this type of "draw the line" behavior.

Bill Choisser replied:

This seems more than "plausible" to me, because I experience the same thing.  As an adult who is aware of why this happens, I do my best to diminish its effect, but this is tough.  Emotions flow automatically from within, and channeling them with logic is always a bit of an uphill battle.

Empathy is important in relating to others, yet it is very difficult to find much empathy for something that does not have a discrete identity.  To a face blind person, swarms of people can invoke all the empathy as do swarms of cockroaches - EXCEPT for the few people one feels are unique.  Most people feel so little empathy toward cockroaches that they have no regret at squishing them in their house, but they would recoil at the thought of squishing a puppy.

The minute most people would read the word "puppy" in my previous sentence, they would in horror see the poor fellow's FACE.  Cockroaches are faceless.  They are thus squishable because, being faceless, we don't feel their pain.  They are denied a connection to our empathy.

In Yellowstone Park, they have rules against harming the buffalo, but they encourage people to fish.  Fish are faceless, so is it possible for them to feel pain?  Of course they do, just as a tree does make noise if it falls in a forest where no human hears it.  But I've heard people in all seriousness argue that a tree falling in an uninhabited forest does so silently.  And others think fish feel no pain just because they themselves don't feel it - the sensation doesn't jump the empathy gap.  Well, we are not the only ones with a blindness, folks.  They are blind to things too - like animals without humanlike faces - and they act accordingly.  We just happen to be blind to PEOPLE.

Two more illustrative thoughts to ponder....

Reducing the enemy to indistinguishable-from-each-other stereotypes is a common practice of governments in whipping their population into a mood for war.  "We" are individuals, "they" are a horde.  When they cease to be individuals, they cease to be PEOPLE.

Recall "The Ugly American"?  We used to hear about him - the tourist who would go to a place were English was not spoken and then be rude to everyone because they didn't know it?  Just as when one cannot communicate emotions, if one cannot communicate words, he can also be seen as less than HUMAN.

I guess what I'm driving at, is that, although none of this is pretty, it *IS* normal, common, human behavior - to DEHUMANIZE those with whom we don't have good communication.  Communication involves words, involves emotions, and involves identity ("who said it"), and if it is lacking any of these components, it lacks the feelings of genuineness and humanness.

As a face blind person who can recognize some people easily and others not at all no matter how hard I try, I find a vast difference in the empathy I feel from within for different people.  Longhaired men are the group very easy for me to get identity and emotion from, and I very much identify with them.  I feel what they feel.  I am far more apt to speak to one on the street (though a stranger), choose to read a story about one in the newspaper or see a movie about one, smile at one as I speak, and yes, feel genuine instant sorrow if I should hurt one.

A face blind man in New York once told me the world to him was like a cattle drive in a western movie - there were a few cowboys and thousands of cows.  He really only had an interest in being a cowboy and socializing with the cowboys.  That's natural, folks.

For this to all happen, a face blind person has to have advanced to the point that they CAN recognize some people far better than the multitude, and that is GOOD.  This ability will give your child a window into the world - an ability with some people to experience what it is like to be normal.  Your child will do all that important growing of a personality by getting contact during crucial years with those people she can be normal with.  Make sure she gets plenty of contact with those people for the sake of her development.

Still, as she and you have learned already, most people will not be in the recognized group.  The solution is not to learn to recognize all of them; if that were possible, we wouldn't be here [on this email list] together, now, would we?  Instead, a child must learn (since one does not feel) that the unrecognizable people have feelings too, and one must learn to bend over backward to be nice and empathetic to them.  If one really tries, he may in time be able to circulate among such people and be seen in a positive light.  What one does is puts to use the skills that one has learned in the group one does read well.  Deep connections will be tough of course among the unreadable people since the genuine empathy just isn't there.

I figured all this out around 50 years of age, so I can remember it all; I don't have to dig back to childhood.  It made a big difference for me in relating to people in general when I realized the "unrecognizables" had feelings too, and then I felt a deep pity for them that they had feelings that could not be seen.  I've surely been a much more civil guy ever since.

Your daughter is very lucky to have had someone spot this situation at such an early age.  Kids normally pick up empathy, and your kid has shown she is normal by picking up empathy from the kids she can read.  What she probably needs is to have it explained to her that all kids have feelings, even the kids whose feelings cannot be seen. Kids are great at imagination, so perhaps getting her to imagine the feelings of those children could be made into a productive game, and this would help her learn to empathize with them.

The parent replied:  Just wanted to let you know that your perspective about being unable to relate to people who are unidentifiable appears to be correct where C is concerned. I talked to C about the fact that all of the kids in her class have feelings. She promptly replied that only she and her best friend, A, have feelings. I insisted that all of the children in her class have feelings whether or not she can figure out who they are. She replied that that might be true, but she and A have more feelings than the other kids. Very interesting.

Now to combine empathy training along with helping C learn to recognize all the kids in her class.

Thanks again for your perspective!

December 2003

"Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction."
       ~ Anne Sullivan (Helen Keller's Teacher)

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