Parashkev Nachev, neurologist, on the human face.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
PN You asked for an object and I chose this both as an example and as an anti-example. It is something I created with a machine that has been taught to extract the canonical form of a set of images. The set here is photographs of death masks, mostly of famous men. It is less an average than an essence, a distillation of all the images into one, as imagined by the machine. You might ask how a computer can be said to imagine something but these days computer algorithms can be so complex that they can properly be said to be imagining things: the image you see is inexistent in the scholastic sense. But at the same time it is not arbitrary: it is grounded in the features of the dataset. So the process is analogous to that of human imagination, at least when biologically conceived. When you draw a representation of something, it is a synoptic synthesis of the diversity of instances of the thing you have seen, and need be identical with none of them while being similar to all. When I say this image is an anti-example it is because it’s dead, it’s expression-free. These are mostly old men, yet the faces are smooth: death botoxes our wrinkles out naturally. The current trend for extinguishing the face of any expression that ages one, here finds its ultimate manifestation.
GB So why talk about the face?
PN It is strange how rare the face has become in contemporary art. Very few artists deal with it, and when they do it is tokenized, accidental in detail, or else distorted away from physicality (as opposed to away from realism, which would be ok). I don’t wish to condemn this but simply to observe the direction of travel. If we think about the role of the face in our lives in ecological terms it is surely the most important visual object of all. Unsurprisingly, that is reflected in the brain. Within the areas that appear to be sensitive to objects of different kinds, the area that’s sensitive to faces is the most prominent and well developed. It was thought that this was specifically dedicated to faces but it turns out that if you’re obsessed with some other object, say stamps, you get comparable activation in that area when you see them. So it may be that this area is responsible for refined perceptions, where we make fine distinctions between relatively small differences. We’re extremely sensitive to the geometry of the face. There is no computer system that comes even close to recognizing faces as well as we do, let alone perceiving nuances of expression. We can even discern a great deal of someone’s psychology in a flat, passport-style photograph. There have been studies where you take pictures of faces and ask people to guess how clever, neurotic etc they are. The success rate for judging these psychological traits is remarkably high. This sensitivity to variations in the face can be thought of as shared knowledge. We all have this capacity. Perhaps it’s precisely the requirement for a shared culture that overlaps with the idea of being able to detect a subtle change in something. It’s only when you have an overlap between individuals exploring a particular category that you can really become sensitive to those variations. If something is to be understood and refined, it needs to be shared within a community. If you have parallel streams without an overlap within the kinds of things we’re seeing, we would never develop the expertise on which a common judgment could be based. It’s very hard to be able to claim that a face is remarkable or beautiful without being able to set it against others of its kind. Here there’s a link between the idea that something might be beautiful and the possibility that beauty requires a sophisticated expertise, which requires a community that is shared.
GB So do you think this behaviour is all learned or are we hard wired to respond to beautiful faces?
PN This business of wiring is a curious one. The answer is, we will never know. In order to tell how much is nurture and how much nature you have to be able to replicate experimentally across both. You can potentially replicate across nature, at least genetically, but not comprehensively, because the fundamental nature of the biological is that it is chaotic, it adds noise to the system and then makes sense of it, like an artist might splash paint onto a canvas randomly and only then bring it into some form. A genome contains roughly the same amount of information there is on a compact disc. Only a small amount of it will be relevant to what happens in your brain so the “hard-wired” component is tiny compared with the complexity of the final product. The bedrock of commonality is achieved rather than given. Brains are input/output devices that optimise the transformation to whatever end, and how that solution is arrived at will vary from one person to another. There will be broad commonalities, but there’s never identity. There’s never one perfect way. That’s the biological reality of life. The inevitable implication is that everyone is going to have a different way of arriving at one judgment or another and those judgments will vary.
GB What about common preferences such as symmetrical faces?
PN You can’t ignore the symmetry of the face. That is a component of its appeal, but the nature of a face is that there is no single dimension by which you can judge if it’s beautiful or ugly. It’s always a constellation of features taken together that tell you one thing or another. Also we cannot easily conceive of a face with the expression removed, even though that’s what I’ve shown you here. We think of the face as being a window on the soul but in fact it’s much stronger than that. A face *is* a part of the soul, in the sense that if you paralyze the face, you’re not just unable to express emotion but you don’t feel emotion. Killing the crow’s feet around your eyes with botox can make you depressed because your eyes no longer smile. We don’t know how that works biologically but the simplest explanation is that the facial expression of an emotion is in part constitutive of the emotion. Maybe the two are indivisible.
GB Do you find faces beautiful regardless of their expression?
PN To make a judgment that something is beautiful you also have to be able to make a judgment that it’s ugly. Range has to go both ways. You can feel contempt for a face just looking it at but that also means that it’s possible that your can love somebody for the face alone.
GB Isn’t that bad judgment? Just loving someone for their face?
PN What would be a better judgment? You recognise someone *in* his or her face rather than *by* it. It’s the one part of biology in which the human being appears to be immanent. A face has that suffusion of person and body. It’s where the two connect.
GB Do you think we have a bias in that we associate beautiful faces with moral goodness?
PN I think there’s a distinction to be made between the geometrical regularity of a face and its beauty. Someone with very regular features might have an unattractive face: a few “supermodels” would be good examples. But there is an obsession nowadays with pretending that life can be lived without bias. All our prior assumptions cannot always be flat. An animal that tried to live without the use of prior assumptions would not last long in evolution. That is not an intellectual or moral failure. The moral failure is not to let your prior be changed by the evidence, but that is too sophisticated a distinction, it seems.
GB Do you believe what George Orwell said about everybody getting the face they deserve by a certain age?
PN Clearly your face changes according to your expressions. But one of the features of the face is its capacity for mimicry. When we look at a smiling face we have a tendency to smile, and so on. There’s a built-in reciprocity. So if everyone around you is frowning you might end up looking frowny too. But I am sure that your face changes with how you live. Skin and nervous tissue are are developmentally related: both come from ectoderm. This is reflected in dermatological diseases, which very commonly interact with one’s psychological state. There is also an overlap with the immune system. There is a study where mug shots of early 20th century baseball players taken from their team books were scored for their smiles and then correlated with lifetime survival. The median difference in survival between those who smiled and those who didn’t was almost a decade. So those who smiled lived longer, but only those whose smiles were genuine, involving the eyes. The fake grinners did as badly as the naturally unsmiling.
Many think the modern world really began in the 17th century. But my feeling is that in many ways, it is when the most potent descent also began. The dominant tools within the humanities are fundamentally scientistic. They’re all about attempting to model their subject matter in some formulaic way, to reduce it to theory. These days, the more theory you can bring in, the better. The success of a theory is measured by its explanatory power but it is only a theoretical explanation if it provides a recipe for reproducing what is explained. That inversion almost never works for any theory in the humanities, which tells you a great deal about the illusion it represents.
GB So do you think that technology can never come up with anything as complex as biology?
PN Machines have one advantage over us: they don’t get bored. A machine can train indefinitely, like my canonical faces machine. But they have nothing approaching the complexity of the human brain. The human brain has something like 80 billion cells with thousands of connections each. You couldn’t create something like that with current technology.
GB So you’re not worried about artificial intelligence taking over?
PN The intellectual part of us has no drive. This idea that somehow the emotional part of us is the consequence of our intellect is bullshit. Sure, it is modified by the intellect, but the emotional part is fundamentally older. It is the animal part of us. The intellect is stuck on top of it. A machine can be taught to do something intellectual but it won’t suddenly develop an emotional capacity as a result. That idea comes from a misunderstanding of what human beings are like. But artificial intelligence will allow us to counter the “enlightenment fallacy” I’m talking about, the idea that we can reduce everything to theories. Because these machines are more and more like human experts, to the extent that we cannot explain how they come to their judgments. There won’t be a formula that you can specify in simple terms for the best machines.
GB What makes something of the word Beauty to you?
PN Beauty is a polymorphous concept that is resistant to *useful* definition. Why do we stare at somebody who is beautiful? Maybe it’s because we’re looking for flaws for longer, or because we’re not bored. There are a million ways of conceptualizing it so why just choose one? Why not leave it in the beautiful Wittgensteinian phrase, “constitutionally indeterminate.”