It might sound weird, but I have this ability to see faces in all kinds of inanimate objects – hanging towels or garments, wallpaper patterns, stone walls, even the grain in wood. There is, I’ve discovered, a name for it: pareidolia, and a biological reason. This “robust and subtle capability” is, according to Wikipedia, thought to be “the result of eons of natural selection favoring those people most able to quickly identify the mental state, for example, of threatening people, thus providing the individual an opportunity to flee or attack preemptively.”And I am in good company: No less than Leonardo da Vinci described pareidolia as a device for painters, writing that “If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones... you will be able to see...figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms.”OUR FASCINATION with faces, initially our mothers’, dates back to our very beginnings in the world. Babies love faces, and researchers have found that when infants just four days old are provided with only visual identifying information and without all the usual stimuli associated with the presence of the mother’s face, the newborns will look longer at their mother’s face than at a stranger’s.A psychologist friend once told me that my fondness and attachment to clocks that have hands and faces – I currently own nine, all in perfect working order – was a reminder of my first happiness on gazing into my mother’s face. The clock’s cheerful round face, she said, recalls the human one.
See the latest opinion pieces on our pageWith my mother long gone, it’s a warming connection; and the clock’s steady ticking could almost be interpreted as a maternal caution that time doesn’t stand still and I had better get a move on and do something useful.CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882) thought that key facial expressions were innate, extending over different cultures, and there is considerable evidence to indicate that he was right. When American psychologist Paul Ekman (b. 1934), a pioneer in the study of emotions and their facial expression, showed photographs of faces to people in 20 different Western cultures and 11 different isolated and pre-literate groups in Africa, he found that 96 percent of Western respondents and 92 percent of African respondents identified happy faces. The results for disgust and contempt were similar.Ekman also found that newborns everywhere look disgusted in response to bitter tastes, show facial distress at painful stimuli, and evince interest in novel sounds and other sensory changes. Since an infant less than a month old is unlikely to have learned these expressions, it is safe to assume they are not socially conditioned, but inborn.To support this view, Ekman studied blind children and reported that they showed the same facial expressions for particular emotions as sighted children. Clearly they could not have learned their expressions by observing others.OUR WESTERN culture devotes huge attention to the face, specifically women’s faces; but the emphasis is largely on externals. There’s a “scientific formula” for beauty mandating a certain distance between facial features. Particularly, our culture focuses intensely on keeping one’s skin looking smooth at virtually any cost – or in as costly a way as one can afford; and if you’re thinking top-of-the range creams and serums and spas or, further on, facelifts, you’re talking big money.“Your face isn’t your passport,” one female celebrity quipped; “it’s your visa, and it runs out quickly.”The troubling message here is that what matters most about every woman’s face is an unlined skin, and that when wrinkles come, as they eventually must, that woman’s lovability must naturally decrease in proportion.Yet thinking back to the women we love and have loved, who have been there when we needed them and met us always with sympathy and warmth, we know that a smooth skin, while very nice, is low on the list of requirements for deep emotional connection. But such is the power of the fashion and advertising industries that we ignore this knowledge and judge ourselves by their exaggerated and essentially fake standards.I KNOW a woman who had a facelift in her sixties, looked marvelous afterwards and said it had boosted her confidence. Nothing wrong with that, if you are prepared to lay out the money and know the results won’t last; but this woman is wise enough to realize that her appeal goes deeper than her skin. I’ll always remember another woman I came across some years ago in a senior citizens residence. She was introduced to me as being in her 90s, and I was struck by how unlined her face was – the result of one or more facelifts, I was told afterwards. The effect was quite unnerving since she was clearly very aged. An extreme example, perhaps, but telling.“A man’s face is his autobiography,” said Oscar Wilde. “A woman’s face is her work of fiction.” Suffice it to say this woman’s work was more of a horror story than an ode to beauty.Dewy freshness and suppleness of skin belong to youth, and only a lucky few maintain it into maturity. Yet there is more to beauty than what is visible to the eye, and a lot of it has to do with the vibe that radiates outwards from inside a woman, or man. When you meet someone who is comfortable in their skin and can relate to others with calm confidence, there’s a beauty there that puts the odd line or wrinkle firmly in its place on the scale of unimportance. UNDER EVERY face is a body, and I wish more older women would look for the appropriate grace and beauty that is there for them to adopt if they would only search for it, and not strive to mimic the very young. Being outrageous and pushing the limits of fashion is part of being young; in later age it can verge on caricature.In Tel Aviv last week, I saw a bus stop poster advertising shoes that had buckled straps going across and around the leg all the way up to the knee – six or seven straps altogether – and thought that someone young and daring might carry off such footwear with panache and be admired for it. Anyone over 30, I felt, should beware.Then I saw a woman coming toward me who might have been in her late fifties. Her shoulder-length hair was striped across in three colors: ash-blond, pink and mauve, and she wore a leopard-skin mini-skirt and high brown boots. Her face was set and her look wasn’t happy.Now this woman had a perfect right to dress however she wished, and in our liberal Israeli society hardly anyone gave her a second glance; but as she passed by I thought how much more alive she would have looked had her color radiated from the inner, essential woman rather than being plastered on from outside.Another extreme case, no doubt; and finding one’s inner self isn’t at all easy given the misleading cacophony all around us. But it’s a quest well worth embarking on – or, one might say, facing up to.