Thursday, February 24, 2005

Faces of the Internet

Another one of my long and rambling posts. Beware.

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Whenever I see an infant, I would always try this trick - I would stick out my tongue at the baby, and quite often, the baby sticks out her tongue as well.

This phenomenon made big news in psychology when Andrew Meltzoff discovered it. He tried it on newborn babies who have not seen a mirror before, showing that human babies have some innate understanding of the human face.

At a very young age, children are also able to read another person's emotions. They can tell from your facial expression when you're happy or sad, angry or pleased, and so on. This may not seem like a big deal to most of us since we've always been able to do this, but it's a big deal for psychologists, particularly those who believe that humans are born to be social creatures.

It's also a big deal for parents with autistic children.

Autism, according to the The American Heritage Dictionary, is
A psychiatric disorder of childhood characterized by marked deficits in communication and social interaction, preoccupation with fantasy, language impairment, and abnormal behavior, such as repetitive acts and excessive attachment to certain objects. It is usually associated with intellectual impairment.

In extreme cases of autism, other people are seen as just things or objects that move randomly and make funny noises. And autistic children do not comprehend facial expressions well, if at all.

But back to "normal" children.

It has also been known that infants like to look at the faces of people more than almost anything else, and their favourite face is usually their mother's. My own observations (as a third party observer, not as a mother) has also verified this.

Shown pictures of strangers, babies tend to prefer looking at beautiful faces. Thus babies prefer not to look at me if given the choice. I'm sure you understand why.

And it's not just babies or young children.

We prefer looking at beautiful faces over not-so-beautiful ones. And those of you who are endowed with a beautiful face, I suspect that you enjoy your time facing a mirror. (There are others who spend ages in front of the mirror in an attempt to improve what they see, but that's another story. Trust me, Photoshop is more productive.)

But even if it's not beautiful, the human eye is still naturally drawn to a human face - something that good artists and photographers understand very well, and which has been proven in the lab. Eye-tracking instruments have confirmed that when someone looks at a photograph, their eyes tends to linger on the human face longer than other parts of the picture. (I'm not sure how much this applies to pr0n though.)

Then comes the internet, where communication is largely textual, without the facial component. You don't see the face of the person you email, you don't see that face of that bigoted bastard you're arguing in the forum, you don't see the face of that (hopefully cute) girl you're chatting with on IRC. And for a good number of bloggers, you don't see the face behind all those posts you so enjoy. Sometimes this is okay. Who cares what the bigoted bastard looks like, since you guys are having an intellectual discussion (which almost always becomes emotional anyway)? Who cares what the blogger looks like if she's only providing links to interesting news?

The internet has changed much of how we use text. Strong writers can convey emotions purely through their wordcraft, but most of us find it much easier and more convenient to do that with the aid of smileys and other emoticons.

While smileys and emoticons are often useful and quite effective in communicating emotions across cyberspace, there are times when it falls far short.

Has there been a time when your mind began to form a picture of a particular person online, even though that picture is vague at best and you know it is probably wildly inaccurate anyway? Has there been a time when you were so interested in how that person looked that you even requested a picture? That guy in a particular forum? That evasive blogger? Or that interesting girl you've been chatting with on MSN?

Could it be that a personal dimension has creeped into the picture? Or could it be that you have been moved emotionally in some way?

Then why do you yearn so much, for that picture, that face?

Unfortunately, things don't always go our way in real life. We are disappointed. Disappointed because she refused to send me her pic. Or because he turns out to be ugly. Fugly.

Sometimes it's better to remain faceless.

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Okay this didn't turn out to be as long as I expected, partly because I couldn't figure a way to weave everything in coherently, partly due to this headache I'm having, after being drained dry by a recent event (yes I'm being vague).

Weave everything in coherently. Weave reminds me of another word I've been using in this post - text. Etymologists will know what I'm talking about:
Middle English texte, from Old French, from Late Latin textus, written account, from Latin, structure, context, body of a passage, from past participle of texere, to weave, fabricate.

That's also how we got textile.

Enough of etymology - it's not that useful really, but I enjoy it nonetheless.

And enough rambling.

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