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Country Views: The art of face scanning

It is ill mannered to stare at any part of a person, but it is especially rude to look at their face for any length of time. Instead we scan faces as rapidly as the clerk at the store scans a bar code. The clerk can determine price, adjust inventory, add the product to our list of purchases and conduct one or two other transactions. But it is a crude process compared to a human scanning another human’s face.

Our brief scan of another person’s face gathers data such as approximate age, sex, race, facial disfigurement, and even emotional state. With that scan we make judgments and decisions about that person in relationship to ourselves. It is a lightening-fast process and can be corrected for error or subtly adjusted by future scans. For example, you might ask yourself, “ Is that child a boy or a girl?” Or, “Do I know that person?” Or, “How many rings does she have in her lips?”

Apparently each of us has been seeking human faces and scanning them since shortly after exiting our mother’s womb. Vicki Bruce, British face recognition psychologist and former head of the School of Psychology at Newcastle University, found that babies that were a mere nine minutes out of the womb preferred gazing at a pattern of a face rather than a blank or scrambled pattern.

Not only is looking at faces central to being human, we also insist on putting human faces onto inanimate surfaces. The face of Elvis has been spotted on a potato chip, and the visage of Jesus has been observed on a grilled cheese sandwich. It seems that there has always been a man or woman or boy on the moon. The ancient Romans thought the face they perceived in the mountains and craters of the moon was a sheep thief banished from the earth. Chinese mythology saw a goddess banned to the lunar surface for consuming two doses of immortality potion. For reasons unknown, the lunar goddess kept company with some moon rabbits.


Land feature that resembles a face on the surface of Mars, taken by the Viking 1 orbiter and released by NASA/JPL.

The most controversial of space faces is certainly the Face on Mars. The Face on Mars was first photographed by the Viking 1 spacecraft in 1976. The form of a human face looking out into the depths of space is very clear in that and in later photographs taken by Viking II. NASA has always dismissed the significance of the giant face. A 2001 high resolution photograph, taken by the Mars Global Surveyor, shows the face to be nothing more than a series of high mesas and low, shaded valleys. Others claim that NASA air brushed the 2001 photo and is covering up evidence of ancient Martian civilizations. They believe, I think, that the giant Martian Face is scanning the reaches of the solar system searching for something.

The truth about the Goddess in the Moon and The Face on Mars is that we are all searching for something that we recognize in the depths of space, as we come out of the womb and at the grocery counter as we scan the faces of our fellow shoppers and the clerks serving us.

Babies are allowed to stare and to study our faces as we lovingly caress their faces with our eyes. One of the happiest moments in a parent’s life is when their child makes their first sweet smile. I’m not certain, but it is possible that is all we are seeking, just a smile of recognition of our humanity. So tonight, go out and smile at The Man in the Moon. He/she may smile back. And tomorrow, when you’re at the grocery store and you glance at the clerk, do smile. You will merely be acknowledging that person’s existence and humanity, and you may well be rewarded in kind.

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