Memory: How to Develop, Train and Use It

Chapter XII

How to Remember Faces

The memory of faces is closely connected with the memory of names, and yet the two are not always associated, for there are many people who easily remember faces, and yet forget names, and vice versa. In some ways, however, the memory of faces is a necessary precedent for the recollection of the names of people. For unless we recall the face, we are unable to make the necessary association with the name of the person. We have given a number of instances of face-memory, in our chapter on name-memory, in which are given instances of the wonderful memory of celebrated individuals who acquired a knowledge and memory of the thousands of citizens of a town, or city, or the soldiers of an army. In this chapter, however, we shall pay attention only to the subject of the recollection of the features of persons, irrespective of their names. This faculty is possessed by all persons, but in varying degrees. Those in whom it is well developed seem to recognize the faces of persons whom they have met years before, and to associate them with the circumstances in which they last met them, even where the name escapes the memory. Others seem to forget a face the moment it passes from view, and fail to recognize the same persons whom they met only a few hours before, much to their mortification and chagrin.

Detectives, newspaper reporters, and others who come in contact with many people, usually have this faculty largely developed, for it becomes a necessity of their work, and their interest and attention is rendered active thereby. Public men often have this faculty largely developed by reason of the necessities of their life. It is said that James G. Blaine never forgot the face of anyone whom he had met and conversed with a few moments. This faculty rendered him very popular in political life. In this respect he resembled Henry Clay, who was noted for his memory of faces. It is related of Clay that he once paid a visit of a few hours to a small town in Mississippi, on an electioneering tour. Amidst the throng surrounding him was an old man, with one eye missing. The old fellow pressed forward crying out that he was sure that Henry Clay would remember him. Clay took a sharp look at him and said: “I met you in Kentucky many years ago, did I not?” “Yes,” replied the man. “Did you lose your eye since then?” asked Clay. “Yes, several years after,” replied the old man. “Turn your face side-ways, so that I can see your profile,” said Clay. The man did so. Then Clay smiled, triumphantly, saying: “I’ve got you now–weren’t you on that jury in the Innes case at Frankfort, that I tried in the United States Court over twenty years ago?” “Yes siree!” said the man, “I knowed that ye know me, ‘n I told ’em you would.” And the crowd gave a whoop, and Clay knew that he was safe in that town and county.

Vidocq, the celebrated French detective, is said to have never forgotten a face of a criminal whom he had once seen. A celebrated instance of this power on his part is that of the case of Delafranche the forger who escaped from prison and dwelt in foreign lands for over twenty years. After that time he returned to Paris feeling secure from detection, having become bald, losing an eye, and having his nose badly mutilated. Moreover he disguised himself and wore a beard, in order to still further evade detection. One day Vidocq met him on the street, and recognized him at once, his arrest and return to prison following. Instances of this kind could be multiplied indefinitely, but the student will have had a sufficient acquaintance with persons who possess this faculty developed to a large degree, so that further illustration is scarcely necessary.

The way to develop this phase of memory is akin to that urged in the development of other phases–the cultivation of interest, and the bestowal of attention. Faces as a whole are not apt to prove interesting. It is only by analyzing and classifying them that the study begins to grow of interest to us. The study of a good elementary work on physiognomy is recommended to those wishing to develop the faculty of remembering faces, for in such a work the student is led to notice the different kinds of noses, ears, eyes, chins, foreheads, etc., such notice and recognition tending to induce an interest in the subject of features. A rudimentary course of study in drawing faces, particularly in profile, will also tend to make one “take notice” and will awaken interest. If you are required to draw a nose, particularly from memory, you will be apt to give to it your interested attention. The matter of interest is vital. If you were shown a man and told that the next time you met and recognized him he would hand you over $500, you would be very apt to study his face carefully, and to recognize him later on; whereas the same man if introduced casually as a “Mr. Jones,” would arouse no interest and the chances of recognition would be slim.

Halleck says: “Every time we enter a street car we see different types of people, and there is a great deal to be noticed about each type. Every human countenance shows its past history to one who knows how to look…. Successful gamblers often become so expert in noticing the slightest change of an opponent’s facial expression that they will estimate the strength of his hand by the involuntary signs which appear in the face and which are frequently checked the instant they appear.”

Of all classes, perhaps artists are more apt to form a clear cut image of the features of persons whom they meet–particularly if they are portrait painters. There are instances of celebrated portrait painters who were able to execute a good portrait after having once carefully studied the face of the sitter, their memory enabling them to visualize the features at will. Some celebrated teachers of drawing have instructed their scholars to take a sharp hasty glance at a nose, an eye, an ear, or chin, and then to so clearly visualize it that they could draw it perfectly. It is all a matter of interest, attention, _and practice_. Sir Francis Galton cites the instance of a French teacher who trained his pupils so thoroughly in this direction that after a few months’ practice they had no difficulty in summoning images at will; in holding them steady; and in drawing them correctly. He says of the faculty of visualization thus used: “A faculty that is of importance in all technical and artistic occupations, that gives accuracy to our perceptions, and justice to our generalizations, is starved by lazy disuse, instead of being cultivated judiciously in such a way as will, on the whole, bring the best return. I believe that a serious study of the best means of developing and utilizing this faculty, without prejudice to the practice of abstract thought in symbols, is one of the many pressing desiderata in the yet unformed science of education.”

Fuller relates the method of a celebrated painter, which method has been since taught by many teachers of both drawing and memory. He relates it as follows: “The celebrated painter Leonardo da Vinci invented a most ingenious method for identifying faces, and by it is said to have been able to reproduce from memory any face that he had once carefully scrutinized. He drew all the possible forms of the nose, mouth, chin, eyes, ears and forehead, numbered them 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., and committed them thoroughly to memory; then, whenever he saw a face that he wished to draw or paint from memory, he noted in his mind that it was chin 4, eyes 2, nose 5, ears 6,–or whatever the combinations might be–and by retaining the analysis in his memory he could reconstruct the face at any time.” We could scarcely ask the student to attempt so complicated a system, and yet a modification of it would prove useful. That is, if you would begin to form a classification of several kind of noses, say about seven, the well-known Roman, Jewish, Grecian, giving you the general classes, in connection with straight, crooked, pug and all the other varieties, you would soon recognize noses when you saw them. And the same with mouths, a few classes being found to cover the majority of cases. But of all the features, the eye is the most expressive, and the one most easily remembered, when clearly noticed. Detectives rely much upon _the expression of the eye_. If you ever fully catch the _expression_ of a person’s eye, you will be very apt to recognize it thereafter. Therefore concentrate on eyes in studying faces.

A good plan in developing this faculty is to visualize the faces of persons you have met during the day, in the evening. Try to develop the faculty of visualizing the features of those whom you know–this will start you off right. Draw them in your mind–see them with your mind’s eye, until you can visualize the features of very old friends; then do the same with acquaintances, and so on, until you are able to visualize the features of every one you “know.” Then start on to add to your list by recalling in the imagination, the features of strangers whom you meet. By a little practice of this kind you will develop a great interest in faces and your memory of them, and the power to recall them will increase rapidly. The secret is to study faces–to be interested in them. In this way you add zest to the task, and make a pleasure of a drudgery. The study of photographs is also a great aid in this work–but study them in detail, not as a whole. If you can arouse sufficient interest in features and faces, you will have no trouble in remembering and recalling them. The two things go together.

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