Friday, May 25, 2007

On Old Friends Looking Young

What do I see when I look at a friend's face?

When I was a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley in the 1990s, two friends (call them Jack and Rob) came up unexpectedly for a visit. But only one, Jack, showed up at my door. He invited me out for coffee, and we immediately walked downtown. As always, a number of people were loitering around outside the Berkeley subway station. Jack pointed at one and said, "Doesn't that guy look a bit like Rob to you?" I didn't think so: That guy looked shabby, fat, and old. Rob, of course, was none of these things. The catch, of course, was that it was Rob. (Those pranksters!)

As I recall it now, it seemed to me that a few seconds later, when suddenly I recognized Rob for who he was, his appearance literally changed before my eyes. He actually looked thinner, neater, younger, more handsome. (Philosophers of language may be reminded of John Perry's famous example of seeing himself in the mirror of a bus and wondering about that shabby pedagogue.)

When I see a friend for the first time in ten years, it's rare for that friend not to look disappointingly old, but the friends I see every day seem to retain their youthful faces. It's an unsurprising psychological fact that we like people we find handsome and find handsome the people we like. But is this just having a positive attitude about a face we see in all its flabby wrinkles every day? Or do we actually smooth over those wrinkles, as it were, in our visual experience? We don't need to see the details of our friend's faces much, I suppose -- at least those details irrelevant to emotion and expression -- so maybe we just "fill in", as it were, with something smooth and regular, or something idealized?

Though Dennett might disagree, it seems to me there's a difference between simply ignoring warts, moles, and wrinkles that are part of our visual experience of our friends' faces and not visually experiencing those warts, moles, and wrinkles at all. Do I have an accurate picture of my friend before my mind's eye, as it were, or is the picture touched up? Though I can't put much weight on a distant memory of a subjective experience, my encounter with Rob inclines me toward the latter. In that moment of recognition, my visual experience was transformed.

Update, 9:26 PM. This picture, grabbed off The Situationist, seems pertinent!


Anibal said...

In the context of this post it is pertinent, i think, to comment about what our visual system from time to time does to us, something like teasing: aftereffects.

If we see for some period of time the flowing of water in some direction suddenly starts to flow in the other (neural recalibration)

Though that doesn´t fit very well with the fact that we look with caritative eyes to our daily partners and some other idealized or attitued based perception, all in an existential line, explain how our brains uses many tricks beyond simply sense data available in the enviroment.

Fill-in phenomena, aftereffects, reconstructions, alignment, grouping, completion, memory based aid perception... are some of them.

And in that case, neo-behaviourism, anti-intelectualism, embodied philosophy... unloaded too much our mind-brain continuum (or not?).

I don´t know how all this match with the more or less knowledge that we don´t have too much knowledge about our inner workings, but there are inner workings, that in that case make us to see younger our older fellows.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Anibal. I agree completely -- the determinants of visual experience are much more than just the immediate visual input!