"I'm not used to seeing people's faces," he said. "There's too much information there. Aren't you aware of it? Too much, too fast."
Some time back, GQ published an article about a man who lived out in the wilds of Maine for over 25 years (“The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit”, by Michael Finkel). It’s a fascinating story, and if you haven’t read it previously, I highly recommend it. When I first read the article, I read the quote at the start of this article, and it just floored me. It felt like the first time I learned that girls could make out with other girls. I suddenly felt less alone in the world.
I rarely look at people’s faces. Looking someone directly in the eye is even more of a no-no. This often leads to a lot of frustration when people try to describe a person they think I should know. I rarely know what color someone’s eyes are. I can’t describe their face. I get about as much information about their face as someone who has very poor eyesight. I generally know if a person has a beard, what race they are, and any features that can stand out from a half-second glance. That’s about it. Even if you think I’m looking at your face while I’m talking to you, I’m really not. I’m usually looking off to your right into blank space.
Where Mr. Knight, the gentleman from the wilds of Maine, described it as too much information, I’m more likely to describe looking directly at someone’s face as a highly intimate act for me. Most people have no idea how much information their “subtle” expressions convey. A face often provides a window into someone’s innermost thoughts and desires. I can’t help but feel an emotional resonance with someone when I’m looking at their face, and honestly, when I experience that with someone who I’m not extremely intimate with, it feels like the emotional equivalent to screeching feedback coming off of a speaker. It’s jarring. It’s frightening. It feels wrong, and I just want it to stop.
For me, visual communication in general is a lot “louder” than the words someone might be saying. Facial expressions feel like shouting to me. It becomes almost impossible for me to process verbal information when I’m looking at someone’s face. Honestly, visual input can be like this for me in general. When I need to concentrate, I’m very likely to shut my eyes or unfocus my eyes while staring at a monochromatic surface like a wall or a carpet. This has actually turned out to be an excellent work-related skill for me though. I can stare at a Unix shell for hours even in very noisy environments because auditory input just kind of shuts off when I go “into the tunnel” as I call it.
Honestly, having grown up with cats as a girl and having spent a lot of time alone with them, I can see that a lot of my behaviors are not all that different from a feline. Sudden movement can cause my entire attention to focus exclusively in the direction where I noticed the movement. When I hang out on our covered porch, the cats and I can get stuck watching a random bird or a spider on the screen for minutes at time. Likewise, cats also regard too much staring at their eyes as a threatening gesture, and they’ll go to great lengths to break eye contact if they start to feel uncomfortable with you. It can even provoke an aggressive response in some cats. Hell, I’ve been known to lash out verbally when I feel like someone is putting me under the proverbial microscope too much. It’s a response designed to frighten you into backing off and giving me space.
If looking at just one person’s face can feel this overwhelming to me, I’m sure you can extrapolate how being a room full of people for a party or social gathering can feel to me. There’s just too much happening. It’s like an electrical storm in my head. I tend to do a lot better if we’re doing a designated activity that I can focus my attention on. Playing a card game like Magic or poker gives me a set of objects that I can stare at to shut off input. In my twenties, I carried around a Game Boy Advance religiously for just this purpose. I think some people who didn’t know me all that well assumed that I was very uninterested in whatever was going on, but really it was my way of making a safe bubble to control the torrent of data being sent at me every second by the people around me. For this same reason, I love having other people in the room with me when I’m playing a single-player video game on my computer or my Playstation. For me, this is a very comfortable way of socializing. Unless there’s a cut scene or something, I’m hearing every word that’s being said in the room without all the visual distraction that comes with more than three people in a room. When I don’t have any of the above tools, I do my best to mentally divide the room into imaginary walled spaces/groups. Sometimes it works, and it sometimes it doesn’t. When I really start to short circuit and feel upset, I will often stare at my feet or the floor. This behavior is not unlike when you tell a person who feels faint that they should lie back with their feet raised. It’s my attempt to “re-ground” myself and establish mental equilibrium. If you ever see me doing this, it’s probably best to just continue your conversation with someone else. When I’ve re-centered, I’ll probably jump into the conversation in a way that makes you understand that I really have been listening to every word.
When really bad overstimulation sets in, I've been told that my face changes and my eyes start to look panicked, but it doesn't exactly feel like panic, fear, or anxiety. It feels like a loss of control. The world develops an audible hum that simultaneously makes it harder to understand the sounds around me and amplifies them to make them even louder and more overwhelming. Lights feel brighter, and the contrast of colors amplifies to make it hard to focus on any one object. I will usually start crying involuntarily, and if I can't get out of the situation, historically, I will start lashing out verbally. Overstimulation feels like a feedback loop in my brain that gets exponentially worse the longer it goes on. As you might imagine, when this happens to you, you want more than anything to make it stop.
If you know me in real life, it's very possible that you've either had no exposure to this part of me or very little of it. I spend much of my mental reserves doing whatever I can to avoid even the mildest of these episodes. After this many years on the planet, I know the situations most likely to provoke this response, and I avoid them where I can. It's very important for me to know the expectations of a situation. If I'm playing a game, it's better if it's a game I already know the rules to. Even better, I ideally should have had an opportunity to see others playing the game, either in person or on YouTube. If I know all the people involved in an activity, I'm way less likely to have difficulty. Strangers are variables that require me to keep a constant watch. Physical touch without warning or appropriately setting my expectations will overload my brain quickly. If you're going to hug me or even pat me on the back, it's important that I know it's coming. Televisions or any electronic device with humans talking are very bad for me unless I'm watching it and giving it my full attention (in which case I need other conversations to be almost non-existent). Eventually a background TV will make my brain "skip" like a bike chain that slipped off suddenly from the pedal ring. Strangely enough, background music doesn't really distract me. In fact, focusing all of my attention on background music like an anchor is one of my go-to strategies for managing my brain.
If I find myself starting to get overstimulated, I will usually excuse myself if possible. I have developed a robust set of ways to disengage mentally from an upsetting situation without having to physically leave it. I think I do a pretty good job of managing my mental climate overall. Even still, I’ve had to realize that this is a key part of who I am and not something I can just will away through sheer determination or practice. I can manage my brain, but I can't alter it in fundamental ways. This is what my normal looks like.
So if you find yourself talking to someone who won’t look you in the eye, try not to take it personally. You might be interacting with someone like me or Christopher Knight. Just roll with the punches, and give us lots of space. Much like that neighborhood stray cat, you might even like us if you give us a chance to get comfortable with you.