Tucson 2000 - A World Without Faces

Tucson logo Toward a
Science of

April 10-15, 2000
Tucson Convention Center
Tucson, Arizona

Sponsored by
Consciousness Studies at
The University of Arizona

Bill Choisser's Plenary Address to the Conference....

A World Without Faces

Bill I have been face blind for all my life. To my knowledge, my deficit with faces is my only visual deficit. I have always had 20/20 vision, and extensive neurological tests have turned up no substantial vision deficits not associated with faces. I have one other major disability - my hearing is very distorted in the brain. Quite a few face blind people seem to get that, though a lot don't.

I am here today because of what I DID when I discovered I was face blind four years ago. Upon learning there was little information about the condition, and none at all about how it affects your life, I set out to make those discoveries.

I had, a few years before, found help with my hearing impairment - resources of the deaf community were invaluable. With face blindness, I found nothing. My experience with my hearing impairment was that the best information came from those who were hearing impaired themselves. So my first task was to track down other face blind people.

This turned out to be a truly international effort. The first few people I connected with were in Canada, Sweden, Finland, and England. And then, over a period of two years, our group on the Internet grew. We compared notes on our lives, and we met other people just like us, people like us like no one was ever like us before. When people on the other side of the world told the strangest of stories right out of my own childhood, I knew what was going on with us, was very real.

In time we found the smattering of documents the medical community had produced on the subject. All dealt with testing and what part of the brain was involved. This was mostly useless to telling us what we wanted to know - how to LIVE with face blindness.

Over the next two years we exchanged thousands of e-mails, and we came to learn just that. Most in the group were quite shy - ashamed if you will - to be very public about it, but I felt our work was far too important, particularly to young face blind children, to leave it trapped on our hard disks. I put my own concerns for privacy aside, wrote up what we had found, and with tears in my eyes dumped it onto the Internet.

Since then, thousands have seen my book "Face Blind!", and hundreds have written me. In making this journey I did find what I sought - what is it like to LIVE face blind. I also found something else. Those who thought medical interest in us ends at diagnosis missed the boat. The most exciting things to learn from us come from looking at how we see the world and live our lives.

Through us, the face blind, one can discover something other people are oblivious to - how IMPORTANT the FACE is. The face occupies a far more important place in our HUMANITY - a crucial and central place - than most people realize. I will talk about that today.

As social beings, we need to tell people apart as individuals. We need to remember facts about each one. We need to form various groups of people in our minds, such as who is in our tribe, who is an acceptable mating partner, and so forth. Yes, even our sexual orientation depends upon our being able to tell people apart. We need to ascertain the emotional state of others, too. The face plays a crucial role in all these tasks.

Key Traits

When we are children, we first face a dilemma that all children face - how are we to tell people apart? One thing WE discovered is that, however children decide to do this, they will be stuck with it for life. Most children find the signals from their inborn face processor such a glaringly obvious choice that they seize on that immediately. For us, that front runner in the contest is absent, and we are confronted with a confusing mishmash of competing signals. Some face blind children just give up, and they never have a usable system to tell people apart. Some use the sound of the voice, something not available to those of us with distorted hearing. I cannot even recognize the voices of family members, but my vision is excellent, so one would expect my ways would be visual.

Most of us who come up with a system to replace the face do not use just one trait, by the way. We almost always use two. One trait just doesn't seem to be good enough to replace the face, which is what in many ways these traits will do. For example, any time I have reason to think of someone, an image of these traits flashes through my mind as assuredly as their face flashes through yours. In effect, they are what a database programmer would call the "key" to my filing system. These two traits are so important to a face blind person that they begged for a name. Reflecting their function, I coined for them the name "key traits".

Male and female children are very different. This difference comes out to a large degree in the selection of key traits that a face blind child makes. Female children tend to pick personality traits and the like. Males are very visual, and we most often pick visual things.

With my hearing impairment, I was destined to create a very visual key trait system. One thing we almost always pick is "hair". It is very "out there" to be seen, and hair has a lot of variety in color, texture, hairlines, and length from one individual to the next. I grew up in a coal mining town in the Ozarks, and all the kids my age wore blue jeans. "Blue jeans" was the second thing I picked.

Once this selection is made, as I said, it is with us for life. I worked for twenty years among shorthaired men in business suits, and I never could tell them apart. Oh, I got to where I could sort them out by process of elimination in a small office. But recognize them on the street? Never. Meanwhile, I recognize my longhaired friends who wear blue jeans anywhere I see them in town.

How Key Traits Work

Curiously, my key traits only work on adult men. I am utterly unable to tell females and children apart. This particular limitation is quite often the case for visual key traits. Our supposition is that a large package of neurons comes on line to evaluate traits of the human form as potential sexual partners at about the same time as key traits are chosen, and we corral those neurons and use them for our key traits also. This is particularly the case for male face blind children, who have a strong visual component to their sexuality. In effect, we create fetishes and they replace the face in our scheme of things. One problem -- in normal adults those neurons simply refuse to work on children, or adults of the "wrong" sex. Though this is not the case for auditory traits at all. Just visual ones.

Key Traits and Identity and Sexual Orientation

One thing that is unthinkable if we have a strong key trait system, is that we not have our own key traits ourselves. Key traits are what make someone seem human to us. We cannot form an acceptable image of ourselves without them. For this reason, a surprising number of us with a strong visual key trait system turn out gay. And those who don't can be very androgynous.

What I remember about hair and blue jeans cannot be described in words. For the longest time I did not give credence to the importance of my traits for this very reason. Then one day I realized that people who use faces cannot reduce them to verbal descriptions either! That's why police hire sketch artists and not writers to put out flyers on criminals. OUR systems are just like the face is. All are a matter of non-verbal memory.

Relative Motion and Key Traits

In using my key traits, I seem to pick up RELATIVE motion a lot. Hair that moves in relation to the head, or jeans that move in relation to the body. I pick up that DIFFERENCE somehow. I get a lot more from jeans when someone is moving than when they are standing still. And I get very little from jeans that are tight, or hair that is short. They are too glued to the body.

Face Leakage Peripheral to Key Traits

Although I get little of the face, I do seem to get a lot more of the face if it is adjacent to hair, and the more hair the better. I actually can recognize longhaired men by their hair and their adjacent face, as I have said. But their face goes with their hair and not the other way around. If a man changes his hair style, such as pulling his hair into a ponytail, the face I see will not seem familiar, because I am not used to seeing it with THAT HAIR.

Although I don't see faces well, I often need to depend on reading lips due to my hearing impairment. I do far better with men who have a lot of hair. I have been in conversations with bearded longhaired men in a noisy setting when a man with little hair would come up to join in the conversation. I would get almost nothing of his speech at all, while the other men would understand him easily. Interestingly, the lips of all the men would look the same, but for the one without much hair, the WORDS just weren't there. My ordinary face vision is so impaired, and is so improved by the presence of hair, that what I experience is the reverse of what deaf people report, that they do better reading lips when hair is absent.

Key Traits and Memory Depth

The amount of brain power I can apply to someone, whether it is decode their speech, feel their emotions, or remember things about them, seems to operate like an associative array. This is the term computer programmers apply to a list such as cities with their postal codes. The more cities one has, the more postal codes one can list. Similarly, the more hair someone has, the more speech I can get from his lips, the more I can remember of his face, the more emotions from him I sense, and the more depth the person seems to have to me in every way.

They say if you break a piece off a hologram, it doesn't get a hole it, the whole picture just gets fuzzier and fuzzier, with less resolution if you will, as you remove more and more. Similarly, if I hide my hair while looking in the mirror, my face loses much detail, my nose seems quite flat, and I don't recognize myself. As the hair disappears, details in the face for the most part disappear with it. Oh, I see a face there. I just don't remember anything, I just don't FEEL anything.


Before I get to another way the face is important besides recognizing people and their speech, I want to talk about one other thing - the difference between "knowing" and "feeling". As an example of this, we all know that men are supposed to marry women and have children, that there's a purpose in this, and all that. But a lot of humans when it comes to their sexual orientation FEEL otherwise, despite this KNOWLEDGE, and they find they have to live their FEELINGS. Feelings are very important to us at a subconscious level, and we can't really come off to others as human if we don't let those feelings have their way.

The face is used as a way to exchange feelings with others, "emotions", if you will. Well, not only have my key traits plugged themselves in to replace the face for building my filing system, they also are crucial in my feeling emotions in others. The faces of women, and men without much hair, to me are dead and emotionless. I just get no FEELING. And as a result I don't return much. As a result, I have a hard time making deep friendships with such people. Of course, that I almost never recognize them also doesn't help.

The emotions I feel from longhaired men surely mostly come from the face, and they leak in with the hair image. These men feel far more human to me than other people for that reason. What is most remarkable, though, is that I get quite strong emotions from blue jeans. And I can remember doing that as far back as age eleven.

We all know what "loneliness" is, but we don't have a word for the emotion that alleviates it, that emotion that others send to us that says, "I'm here." It turns out that that feeling comes from seeing a human face, but in my case, the key traits step in here, too. I can spend all day with a group of people and if there are no men in jeans or with long hair there, I will get lonely as hell. There's just no "human feeling" flowing, and loneliness sets in. Let me spend half an hour then with one longhaired man, and I don't feel lonely at all!

The emotions I absorb from such a man are not limited to the moments I actually look at him. To my mind he is an entity -- one CAPABLE of exchanging emotions with me. That enables my mind to do just that. I feel a deep involvement with him the whole time we are together, not just when I am staring at him. What this means is that my enjoyment of companionship very much depends on what people look like.

Adjusting to Society

In small private social gatherings I do okay, partly because I choose where I go, and if the party is mine, hey, I invite who I want! Twenty years ago, long before I discovered my face blindness, someone commented that everyone at my birthday party had a beard, and so they did. I had given it no thought, but yeah, I had made up the guest list!

In most situations, though, I don't get to make up the guest list. Employment situations are the worst, because other people are totally choosing who will be there, and often there's social pressure on the other attendees to NOT look like the sons of Ozark coal miners. But my ability to relate to others is forever trapped there, just as yours is forever trapped with relating to people with faces.

A Face Society

We all have limitations. None of us sees x-rays but Superman, and society doesn't penalize us for that. Society builds its physical and social structures with the limitations of the majority in mind. If we were all dogs, for example, there would be no doorknobs, because dogs have a heck of a problem with doorknobs. But of course, having human hands, we are oblivious to the intricacy of operating a doorknob. Similarly, society constructs a huge amount of its culture around the face, and most people are oblivious to that. Meanwhile WE have a heck of a problem with the faces they have strewn everywhere.

An alien watching our television would immediately note our fascination with the face, much as we notice dogs' fascination with the way they tell individuals apart, which is sniffing each other. Faces are all over the TV screen, while other body parts are relatively ignored. Cartoon characters are drawn with oversized, intricate, and consistent faces while other body parts are far less detailed, and the artist may pay little attention to their consistency at all.

"Fitting In" - Varies Widely

How this impacts a face blind person is much like how human society impacts a dog. In some settings a dog fits in fine. In others he fits in not at all. To the face blind person, until he understands what is going on, this all appears very random, and it makes no sense at all, which of course is very frustrating. Society sometimes throws so much frustration our way that the level of it constitutes abuse.

Once an organization I belong to had a fund raiser, and we brought things to sell. To my horror, a member of our own group bought my old clothes, and thereafter wore them to the group's events. This was like someone wearing a mask like your face would be for you. No organization would let someone do that to you. But society left me powerless to stop this gross offense.

When I was in junior high school, they made us wear uniforms for physical education. The other kids soon figured out I did not know them in these uniforms, and they began to assault me. I complained to the principal, but I was unable to identify the culprits. I told him what I thought - that they were kids I didn't know. I had no idea they were in my own class. They all had their faces to tell everyone apart. Had everyone been like me, society would not have tolerated their changing into clothes that were all alike. We suffer for being different.

The worst situation by far in my life was when I entered the Navy. They cut all our hair off and made us wear identical clothes. It was like a science fiction movie, being surrounded by hundreds of identical people. On day five I had a nervous breakdown. They nor I knew why, but they agreed they did not want me in the Navy, and tossed me out. Knowing what I know now, I am proud of myself for having survived there for five whole days.

Then in college, it was almost like I had no disability at all. I was surrounded by enough longhaired men and men who wore jeans that I found plenty of people to be friends with. And in that setting, I could pick who I wanted for friends. I got lots of the "I'm here" emotion I was talking about a while ago. I was not lonely at all.

Since then, I've had some jobs where I clicked very well with everyone and felt quite at home there. Then there would be others where stress would build and I couldn't get rid of it. This was extremely perplexing for so many years, and I was constantly fretting with this vast difference in social locales, not understanding the reason for it at all.

Emotional Connections Important

I now know the answer. It was because there was no one there who felt human to ME. A major way of melting away stress is to find other humans to swap emotions with. We certainly don't swap them with the water cooler. Well for me, no humans to share emotions with were to be found.

Key Traits are Key to Social Success

The difference between how I feel toward men who have long hair or are wearing jeans, and other people, is immense. Other people don't feel like they have a face to me, and this is an uncomfortable feeling for a human. If I walked around like this (holding bandanna to cover my face like a bank robber), you would all be very uncomfortable around me. Police would maybe even hassle me. I sure wouldn't want to walk into my bank looking like this! See, society supports you in your deep need to see the face. Meanwhile, many places I go, people look just like this to me.

We Must Show Our Face

You may be thinking about the last Halloween party you attended, but think again. Recall how soon all the face-concealing masks came off! Nobody leaves them on for long.

Interestingly, the mind will accept hiding the face, or one's key traits, for physical protection. And you can't fool the mind - it knows the difference between a physical hazard and other circumstances like cultural pressure. I can cover my jeans with rain pants in a storm, just as you can cover your face in a blizzard. And we can both be content with that. But you'd feel very funny with your face hidden in any setting that does not present such a hazard. And I feel that way about my jeans and long hair. Motorcyclists wear helmets on their bikes, but watch them sometime. They take their helmets off soon after they dismount. I recently attended a motorcycle convention with thousands there. Not one was walking around the convention hall wearing his helmet.

Today, of course, you see me walking around this convention hall in my blue jeans and long hair. Those things are like the face to me and like you do with your face, I show them everywhere. Sometimes society hassles me for looking like this, but now I stand up for myself.

I can't fool myself about the presence of my traits. The mind is always checking to see if the important things are there. I can hardly not see my jeans, of course, but my hair is always in my consciousness too. I see it out of the corners of my eyes, I see it in my shadows, and shadows are everywhere. I see my hair in reflections, and any time one is around buildings or automobiles, reflections are everywhere. And I feel it every time I move my head.

If I try to wear pants other than blue jeans, or if I tie my hair in a pony tail, this does not last long at all. My brain becomes aware of these changes at the FEELING level within minutes, and all I can think about is ripping the pants off, or pulling out the pony tie. I simply feel like I am NOT ME, and this is VERY uncomfortable. Those of you who are men, think how you'd feel right now if you looked down and realized you were wearing a dress! How long could you sit there, before frantically slipping off to a private place to change?


This brings us to another topic, one's identity. Identity is where we all draw the line. People whose identities are seldom threatened by society may think they don't even have one, but let me visit a circumstance similar to the previous scenario. You are a man and one day your employer announces that everyone in the office is to wear a skirt and high heels to work. "Hell, no, I won't do that!" you'd say? Well, you just showed you do have an identity. Identity is that point beyond which you don't care that everyone else in the office will be doing it. YOU will NOT.

One builds up a sense of what feels appropriate for "a person like himself", and these become a part of one's identity. Besides my long hair and jeans, I see what other longhaired men in jeans wear most of the time, and that sinks in as what's appropriate. One sees very few longhaired men in a suit coat or a tie, for example, and my reaction to wearing such things is like the man we just mentioned in the dress. In such clothing, what I feel is CROSS-dressed.

These feelings are not mere "preferences", by the way, they are DRIVES. They are right up there with eating when you are hungry and going to the men's room when nature calls. They nag you and don't go away. Drives are so important that society passes laws to accommodate the drives that most people have. Employers have to give meal breaks and toilet breaks. And if the laws aren't there to protect commonly held drives, judges will make room for them anyway. I don't doubt for a minute that the man in a dress wouldn't get REdress from a court, whether the laws are already there or not.

OUR identities are more rare, and are not widely understood. Others find it hard to put themselves in our shoes. We often get little support from individuals OR society, and we suffer discrimination, stress, and abuse as a result.

Having One's Identity Essential to Feeling Human

I was tormented about my need for long hair by my mother and then by others, to such a great degree that I succumbed to the pressure for years. When I finally grew out my hair, friends said I was like a new person. For the first time in my life I could make facial expressions because for the first time in my life I felt like I could make them. I will never forget the first time I recognized myself in the mirror by my head instead of just by my blue jeans. I will never forget the first time I saw myself cry.

The increase in my self-confidence since learning all this, and then fighting for my right to my immutable identity, has been immense. I have found the ability to make facial expressions of tremendous value. I would never go back. My inability to communicate with the face was a far greater handicap than any prejudice some might have for my present looks would ever be.

What face blind people generally DON'T get, is an identity "as a face blind person". Being face blind means little to me at the feeling level. My identity, although certainly channeled by the face blindness, is as "a longhair". I seek out longhaired male friends. My favorite TV shows are those with longhaired men. Hey, I can see emotions on their faces! And I can tell them apart from the other characters! I don't really care whether my friends are face blind or not. But I do want them to have long hair. And no, not all my friends do. But I have to have a certain amount of longhaired friends or I go stark raving mad with loneliness. It is longhaired men that I identify with most. They are my tribe.

Difference Between Blindness and Face Blindness

One could say, "Well, a totally blind man does not see faces, and he does not have many of these drives." And this is true. But I am not blind. I have 20/20 vision, and my brain knows that at the feeling level. It will not be fooled. I cannot tell it I am blind, because it won't buy the argument. My eyes are open and a flood of images is constantly coming in.


There was a time I wondered if I were human. I wondered, "What are all these strong feelings I have, that others never talk about, and what is this fascination THEY have for so many things that don't move me at all?" Then I discovered my face blindness, and soon afterward my key traits. I came to understand the significance of the face to humans and that my childhood-chosen key traits had moved in to replace the face in many ways. Once I came to this realization, I knew far more about what makes one feel human than do most people. And I felt far more human than, before, I could have ever imagined.

Thank you for hearing my story.

Copyright © 2000 by Bill Choisser. All rights reserved.

An audio tape of this speech can be obtained from
Conference Recording Service, Inc.
Ask for tape TSC20-008. Price is $10.00.

[ Back to Face Blind! ]

[ Tucson Conference Web Site ]
(Link now defunct.)