Voices and Faces

Regular readers of this blog will know that I listen to the radio much more often than I watch the TV. In fact I was thinking last night that I might make the forthcoming Christmas break entirely television-free, to give me a chance to catch up on reading and listen to music when I’m not drinking wine or cooking and eating food.

Anyway, I was listening to the radio last night and it struck me that whenever I hear the voice of someone whose face I have never seen my brain seems to construct a to want to construct a mental image of what the person looks like. This not only happens when listening to the radio but also when talking to someone on the phone. It seems an automatic process over which I have no conscious control. If and when I subsequently find out what the person actually does look like they’re rarely anything like I’d imagined, so whatever process goes on in my head is not very accurate!

But what is the process?

My theory – for which I have absolutely no evidence – is that my brain kind of runs through my memory bank of voices and the faces that go with them, tries to find the closest matches to the voice I’m hearing, and then constructs an image as a kind of amalgam of those identified. The assumption would be that people who sound the same might tend to look the same, which is obviously more than a little dodgy.

Obviously there is contextual information too. Gender and race and age influence the process, for example, but there are many other factors. If I hear the voice of someone on the radio who is introduced as, say, an opera singer my brain probably try to find a match among the faces of opera singers I have seen, and so on.

I’d be interested to know if anyone shares this experience of trying to put a face to the voice and what is going on in the brain when it happens!

As a related issue I remember a discussion in a pub a while ago – back in the days when I used to have discussions with people in pubs – about faces. Some people are considered have more attractive faces than others (an entirely subjective statement) but there’s something about certain faces that makes the owner of the face appear kind as opposed to being beautiful or handsome or otherwise attractive.

People with kind faces appear to be friendly and sympathetic and, by implication, more approachable, which encourages other people to talk to them in a way that they probably would not talk to others. This is not always a positive move. I remember a female colleague in Cardiff – who is aware that she does have such a kind of kind face – telling me that she often got a bit fed up with other colleagues unburdening themselves in conversation with her about things she’d rather not know about.

Anyway I know quite a few people that I would say have kind faces but I don’t know what it is that makes them appear so. It may be something about the shape of the face, softer features, the eyes….or what?

So Question 2 for today’s discussion is: what makes a face look kind?

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