Friday, July 13, 2012

Voice, Emotion, and Coping

Several years ago, our family participated in the Family Study of Autism, which was done at the University of Washington. (One of our sons is autistic.) They study the genetic aspects of autism. So besides taking our blood, they ran us through a day-long battery of tests. This was how I discovered I was mildly face blind. (Face blindness is common in autistic people.) I was shown a couple of photos of faces and told to “remember them.” Then they showed me a battery of faces, and I was supposed to pick out the faces that I recognized. I didn’t get a single one right. But it didn’t worry me. I thought it was a stupid test—how could anyone do that?

I got an inkling that something was wrong when I was briefly shown several photos of intricate drawings of line squiggles. Not drawings of things, but a tangled mess of lines and colors. They told me to “remember them.” And I was shown a battery of tangled lines and colors photos and told to pick out the ones that I recognized. I got 100% right.

When my husband and I met up for lunch, he told me he got 100% of the faces correct. Then he talked about the “stupid” tangled line test, which he scored a zero on. I knew there was something up.

Eventually, I learned I was face blind. And more than that. I couldn’t “read” people’s faces. I remember as a child realizing that I couldn’t figure out people’s emotions. (People would get upset and angry with me, and I had no idea why.) I figured out that other people understood what was going on with other people’s emotions by watching their faces. And I couldn’t do that. So I decided to figure it out. Step by step. Like a research project. I discovered that eyebrows drawn together was usually a bad thing—frustration, anger, sometimes fear. But it was really hard. Instead, I learned to listen to people’s voices.

The voice carries all kinds of emotional clues. The intonation varies, the speed of words spoken, the decibel, the pauses, etc. For me, they were much more understandable. So I focused on that. And I learned to figure out people’s emotions. It’s come with interesting side benefits.

Last night we were streaming a tv show. In the show, a character receives a phone call. The caller is using a voice scrambler to hide the sound of his voice. I said, “Hey, that’s character X calling.” I was right. My family was amazed. But it was easy—the tones were moved, not altered. And the speech patterns were the same.

And I hear perfect fifths. (Which was wonderful when my daughter was little and had to tune her violin. Eventually, I realized she had perfect pitch. But all six year olds are lazy about tuning their violins, even if they know it’s out of tune.) But it’s really fun to find perfect fifths in the sounds around you. The other day, two babies were crying in church. This never bothers me, and I don’t usually notice. But then, one of the babies dropped his pitch and the two cries were a perfect fifth. Very cool. I’ve experienced it in airplane too. The engines were spinning to get up to speed, and two engines hit a perfect fifth. I wanted to shake the person next to me and say, “Do you hear that? The engines are at a perfect fifth!” But I thought that might get me labeled “crazy,” and my neighbors might asked to be reseated. (BTW, in case you aren’t familiar with a perfect fifth, the sounds fit inside each other perfectly. They ring together.)

Anyway, that’s life how I experience. I hope you aren’t bored by these posts, but so many people have expressed interest in face blindness that I thought I’d do another post on it.


  1. No, I love your face blindness posts because it's absolutely fascinating! It's cool how you adapted around your face blindness and how it's made you super attuned to sound. From a writing standpoint, this is some great fodder for character traits and abilities.

    There's actually a system for reading emotion on faces that you can be trained and accredited to do. I forget what the program/system was called now, but I learned about it in Psych when we were studying emotion. If you worked in one of the labs, you could go through the training and learn how to do that, so you can help with the emotion studies being run. I don't know if you recall that TV Show LIE TO ME? It's based on the work and studies of Dr. Paul Ekman, who found that certain facial expressions are innately related to certain emotions. Interesting stuff!

    Also, I totally would have failed the squiggly line test.

  2. Understanding how our brains receive and interpret stimuli is fascinating to me, so I love this post. If you're intrigued by the subject in general, you may like a book I read a couple years ago, "The Tell-Tale Brain", written by V.S. Ramachandran. Don't remember anything in there about face blindness, but there's some really interesting info about various neuro-studies, synesthesia, and autism.

  3. I find this sort of thing fascinating. I'd never heard of face blindness before reading your blog, so anything I can learn about it here is great - new information about the different ways we all process the world is so important!

  4. That's really cool! I find it interesting how humans can adapt to perform functions when the most natural path is hampered.

    Do you think people in similar circumstances can develop the same skill, or do you have perfect pitch (like Ariel) that helps you with these sounds?