Recognizing People

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Recognizing People
Number: 117  
Date created: 2006-03-14 16:13:28
Previous Thought: Please watch this space forever....
Next Thought: The N Word on South Park
Voting results: First instance in brain: 13

Distinguishable features: 6
Small town: 15

Have you ever come across someone that looked just like someone that you knew from High School, College, Work, etc. I think we've all had that happen. Sometimes you'll tell other people about it and they will either agree with you or tell you that they don't look anything like the person you're talking about. Why does this happen?

The human brain is an amazing piece of biochemical evolution.

The last week in February I traveled out to San Diego to take a class on Linux. I was by myself and my company put me up at the Hyatt Regency. A rather nice hotel that had extra ammenities like a conference area, etc. Later in the week I was coming back from my class and noticed a couple of banners put up in the conference area with the logo for a company called Biomet. I immediately recognized the logo because Biomet is a company based out of Warsaw, Indiana, where I grew up and went to High School. What are the chances of them being there. I thought at this point that maybe they were a bigger company than I thought, but after checking their website I found that they were indeed headquartered in the small town of Warsaw.

Having gone to my high school reunion a few years earlier, I knew that someone named Jeff from my high school class worked there, so I thought I might run into him. The next day I asked someone from Biomet if Jeff was at the conference. But he was not. Oh well.

The next day I was coming back from taking my exam for the class (which I passed by the way :-) and I sat down close to the conference area to call my wife and let her know about the exam. After a few minutes I looked across the room and immediate recognized a girl named Jennifer that I knew from my class. I however had the advantage because I knew that it would have been there because I made the association with her through Biomet being from Warsaw. So for me, it was definately a possibility that she could be there. But from her point of view, why would she have any reason to think I would be there? I don't work for Biomet and I only talked to her a little bit 2 years ago at our reunion.

So I decided to test her ability to recognize me and stood up and waited for her to walk over to me. She started to walk over to my side of the room, I think to go somewhere else and then she suddenly looked over at me and IMMEDIATELY recognized me:

Jennifer: "Oh my god what are you doing here?!?!"

She recognized me immediately. There weren't any double-takes or questionability to it, she was sure it was me. She greeted me, talked a bit and then mentioned that Mark(who also worked for Biomet), another classmate was also at the conference. When she took me over to meet him, he immediately recognized me as well.

I found this amazing. I definately haven't seen Mark Smith since High School. Am I that recognizable? I don't think so because there are many people that have told me that I look like someone they know. So that tells me that my look fits into a category of people that all look simular. I've been told by a lot of people that I look like Jared Fogel, the guy in Subway ads (after he lost the weight).

So why could Jennifer and Mark recognize me immediately? One possibility is that they live in a small town and rarely encounter people who look alike, so their perception of people's appearance doesn't come into question. Another possibility is that I do indeed have distinguishable looks or features that cause people to immediately realize that it is me. Much like a corporate logo. I do have some scars on my arm and neck from an accident that could be easily distinguished.

A third possibility is this. The human brain often learns and works through association. It could be that we create a group of objects that we recognize and the first instance of such a "look" has special meaning. All people after that first person that has a look can be easily recognized over the others that follow it. This certainly would be consistent with how people react by saying "You look like someone I once knew".

I've often realized that for each generation in human history, there are only about 10,000 different "looks" that people can have before they start to repeat. This is why demographics work and why cartoons can look like so many people. For instance these cartoon images of my wife and I were generated by a program on the web that had several features that could be mixed and matched to make a cartoon that looked like almost anyone. If I ever studied anthropology, this is the part that I would study.

They are associating your look with someone that has a much stronger impression in their mind.

What do you think?

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