Perspectives: Sorrows of the Digital Age or, Communication absent Faces, Hands and Bodies—the Un-Social Network.

One can only ponder the scene: The family gathered at the dinner table, each of the five, or six, or seven, staring down at a screen. One, maybe, involved with a game, or texting, or listening to music with a pod in his/her ear. Or, a teenager sitting alone in a room sending emails while listening to music, or—worse, a mommy pushing a baby along in a stroller while she talks on the phone, pausing maybe to text. This is how it is now, how it looks to be for a long time.

“The brain mechanisms underlying face recognition emerge early in infancy. From birth onward, infants are much more likely to look at faces than other objects. In addition, infants have a predilection for imitating facial expressions, a finding that is consistent with the central role that the face perception plays in social interaction. Three-month-old infants begin to see the differences in faces and to distinguish between individual faces. At this point they are universal face recognizers: they can recognize different monkey faces as readily as different human faces. They begin to lose their ability to distinguish between nonhuman faces at six months of age, because during this critical period in development they have been exposed primarily to different human faces and not to different animal faces. This perceptual fine-tuning of species-specific face discrimination parallels the fine-tuning of language recognition. That is, infants between four and six months of age can distinguish phonetic differences in other languages as well as their native language, but by age ten to twelve months they can differentiate phonetic variations only in their own language.

In 1872 Charles Darwin pointed out that if infants are to survive and perpetuate the human species, they need adults to respond to and care for them. Influenced by Darwin, Konrad Lorenz, a pioneering Austrian ethologist who studied animal behavior in nature, wondered what aspects of the facial structure of infants elicit intrinsic biological caring responses form parents. In 1971 he proposed that it was most likely the babies’ relatively large heads, their large, low-lying eyes, and their bulging cheeks. He suggested that these features serve as an “9nnate releasing mechanism,” signals that trigger inborn dispositions for caregiving, affection, and nurturing in parents.

Faces are by far the most important category of object recognition because they are the main way we recognizer other individuals and even images of ourselves. We approach people as friends or avoid them as foes by recognizing them, and we infer their emotional state from their facial expression. Artists through the ages have understood the salience of the human face. Modern cognitive psychological and neurobiological studies have explained why human faces, hands, and bodies are so special—they are specific Gestalt percepts. We perceive them as a unified whole as soon as our senses detect them. Moreover, the brain is specialized to deal with faces. Unlike other complex forms, faces are easily recognizable ONLY when they are right side up. They are difficult to recognize and to distinguish from one another when they are upside down.”

From: The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, by Eric Kandel (Random House, New York 2012)

Age of Insight