My mind works in strange ways. I make connections that are obvious to me, but not to others. So please bear with me as I describe how I made the leap from bird identification to people identification to Starbucks baristas to masks and human facial recognition.
Among birders, there’s a difference between identifying a bird and recognizing one. When identifying a bird, we gather GISS – a general impression of size and shape – plus other field marks such as plumage, habitat, time of year. We then compare these characteristics to those of other birds, whether through memory or an illustrated bird guide. Sometimes we make an educated guess. Sometimes, we find a positive match. Sometimes, we give up and decide it’s a little brown birdie or a generic hawk (species).
When we recognize a bird, we don’t need to go through those mental gymnastics. We look at a familiar bird and think, “Blue Jay” or “American Robin,” and can tell at a glance that we’re looking at a Red-bellied Woodpecker, not a Red-headed one.
We do the same when we see people. Sometimes we have to make polite inconsequential chit chat while we desperately try to put a name to a familiar looking face; other times, we immediately know who the person is.
About a year ago, a new Starbucks opened not far from my house – not that there aren’t other nearby ones, too, but this one is closer and easier to reach (less frequent traffic jams to endure). There’s a young, new barista there, Jess, who greets me by name and knows my regular orders (either a mocha mint frappuccino – before they ran out of mint and couldn’t get more delivered, when I switched to mocha – or a mango dragonfruit lemonade). A few months later, another barista, Matt, was transferred from a different nearby branch, which I frequented pre-Covid. I immediately recognized Matt from there.
Both baristas wear masks. Despite their having half their faces obscured, I recognize both of them and don’t confuse them with the other baristas. But one day I realized that even though I would be able to recognize Matt if he weren’t wearing a mask, since I first met him before mask regulations were in effect, I would not recognize Jess. Maybe she has crooked teeth or perfectly aligned ones. Maybe she has a receding chin or a pointy one or a round double one. Maybe she has dimples. I have no idea.
I have had no problem recognizing masked people when I bump into them in a store or see them at the synagogue. I may do some quick identification data gathering first – most likely GISS – but except for a few grey-haired balding men, I haven’t been puzzled by who someone is.
And my conclusion: I understand now how facial recognition software works, even if I’m looking at my phone screen while I’m smiling or frowning or eating or turned slightly to the side. It, too, is relying on GISS, but more so, on the eyes. The old saying about the eyes being the windows of the soul is true. It is through the eyes we recognize people and how we can tell their mood, even when they wear masks.
I really hope if I ever bump into Jess without her mask, I’ll know her from her smiling eyes.