i grew up telling people apart primarily on the basis of their hair. i’ve only recently realized this, but it explains a lot – possibly even racism.
white people can have all kinds of different colors of hair and eyes. if you learn to match names with faces based upon hair and eye color, you’ll probably be fine if you only hang around white people – which is mostly what i did for the first three decades of my life. when i did start regularly encountering people who weren’t white, it was super easy to remember their names because they stood out so strongly. “the asian guy about my height”, “the black guy with glasses” – that’s easy. once you start interacting with large numbers of non-white people, though, “a guy around my size with dark hair and dark eyes” stops being very useful at telling people apart. only very recently – like two weeks ago – at age 29 – did I realize i could tell people apart by remembering details of their facial structure.
this presents new difficulties. memorizing facial details requires me to look at people’s faces – which makes me uncomfortable. it’s like eye contact, something a lot of people have trouble with. i feel like i’m watching you doing something very personal when i look you in the eyes, as if i’m seeing more than you’d like me to see. faces are intense; they are high bandwidth interfaces. i’m happy to put this effort into remembering people’s names, because that’s part of being human and all. i can’t help but wonder, though – if my interactions with non-white people are more taxing on my ability to discern faces and recall names, is it possible that my limbic system interprets the increased cognitive load as a threat?