The Highs and Lows Of Remembering Every Face You See
Chances are there’s at least one thing you have an extremely easy time remembering and recalling. Song lyrics, movie quotes, sport stats, the speech you’ll give when you win that Oscar. For me, it’s faces.
The old intern who took a six-hour lunch. The white date who called me the N-word in a fit of romantic passion. Both of them are still ingrained in my memory for far longer than I wish they were. The same is true of some of the more banal personalities in less offensive interactions. Like old photos, they fade over time, but the rate of decay seems much slower than the average.
I didn’t give much thought to how atypical this was until a few years ago, when on a springtime visit to Iceland, I baffled my boyfriend by pointing out all of the tourists we’d seen earlier on in our journey.
“Oh, we saw her at the Great Geysir,” or, “He sat a few tables over from us at that great restaurant in Vik,” I’d say.
My travel companion would look back befuddled, wondering how I could remember all of them. Just a few months later, I’d come to find out I wasn’t the only one with this quirk.
That fall, I came across the term “super recognizer” in a magazine profile of Scotland Yard. Within this renowned police force lies a team of select individuals who can correctly identify suspects in the grainiest of CCTV footage. I like to picture them as a cross between expert bird watchers and the X-Men.
The officers all made their way to this division in part by performing well above the norm on the Cambridge Face Memory Test.As I read on, a lightbulb went off. I flashed back to the Iceland trip. Here was a group I could call my own.
I took the Cambridge test online, along with the face test from the University of New South Wales Sydney, and sure enough, I fell into this elite range. Though the results weren’t much of a surprise to me, simply having my experience validated was momentous. It offered up an explanation I hadn’t considered for countless experiences.
Take for instance my new commute to work, when on the first day aboard a different train I spotted an editor I met and mingled with at two work parties 11 years ago. Google would later confirm my identification.
If I were more of a people person, I might’ve broken the unofficial rules of the train and engaged this near stranger in conversation, jogging his memory of what for him is sure to have been a forgettable connection. Thankfully, I’m a misanthrope at heart who prefers the rigors of decorum and stood as far away from him as possible.
At times though, this parlor trick felt more like a curse. One oppressively hot and humid summer, I lived just a few blocks from my favorite gay bar. Dollar beers on Mondays, barbecues on Sundays, friends and potential lovers every night of the week. Yet as the summer wore on, this funhouse became a haunted house.
Wading through the crowd, I was sure to pass an awkward Grindr hookup, a smattering of guys who hadn’t responded on more serious “dating” apps, dates that should never have happened, and a frenemy for good measure. In every direction I could find a reminder of my failings and frailties. Such fun!
Whether these offenses occurred five days or five years ago made little difference. Just catching a glimpse of them swaying on the dance floor, or ordering a drink was enough to resurrect those earlier feelings of pain or annoyance. And while some of them could look right through me without a spark of recognition, I didn’t have that same luxury. In time, I stopped going out so as to keep the memories at bay.
When the evenings of isolation began compounding my depression, I shifted to hanging out with friends at straight(er) dives and gay bars in other parts of town. New places meant new faces. My ghosts kindly stayed behind.
Thankfully, though my memory for faces is stickier than average, I’ve learned that the same cannot be said of the accompanying details. My frenemy’s face holds fast, along with a sense of how they made me feel and how we know one another. What exactly they did to get on my bad side? Frankly, at this point, I haven’t a clue anymore. And that is the saving grace. As those details dissipate, so too does some of the sting.
I wish I could tell you that I’m now putting this particular skill to good use as a member of London’s most storied crime-fighting squad. But as a black male who lacks a sense of ease around law enforcement, let alone British citizenship, that was never in the cards for me.
Instead, I’ve started to contribute to the greater good in my own little way. If no one else will take note of the actor who appears in half a dozen bit roles, or if they can’t recall which waiter makes hot chocolate with milk instead of water, then I will. We all long to be recognized; who better to deliver some recognition than me?