…Because he’s a scientist, he gave it a code. “Let’s call it 1-5-9.” he said…

Part 1

My boyfriend is a neuro scientist. He observes the neural response of a small corner of the brain that reacts to what we see. Tucked into said corner there is a collection of cells that responds specifically to faces. The neurons in this area of the brain react differently depending on which face we are seeing.

After smoking a joint last Sunday, he came up with a new theory. According to my boyfriend, every person has a starting point from which further, more demanding facial recognition stems. This initial point represents the most generic and familiar face that you will ever see.

Because he’s a scientist, he gave it a code. “Let’s call it 1-5-9.” he said.

(1-5-9: White male, 35, brown hair, brown eyes, 5 o’clock shadow.)

(1-6-9: White female, 35, brown hair, blue eyes, dark brows.)

This code, he tells me, represents the most reduced and simplified form of all the men and women that I have ever seen. For example, being British, I have seen a great deal more white people than of any other colour. On my travels, I have met a great deal more Europeans than I have citizens of any other continent. The median of all these passing faces is 1-5-9 and 1-6-9. This is the nucleus of my neural awareness. And when I see a face that’s less familiar, the neurons begin at this starting point but then move further and work harder to assess what is not immediately recognisable.

As he tells me this, my boyfriend (2-5-13: White/Mediterranean, black hair, dark eyes, thick stubble) asks me whether I understand. I tell him I do.

He looks sceptical.

“It’s like a tree.” I persist, “1-5-9 is the starting point, the trunk, you know, the beginning of everything, and then it branches out more and more until you reach the outer, least accessible extremities.”

He thinks about this, clearly put out that I’m using a metaphor, but then nods. His eyes are bloodshot and half closed.

I can see it in my mind’s eye. I can see the rush of energy forcing its way up the trunk of this tree. I see it slowing as it forks down a couple of gnarled branches, like a firework that tires as it expands, tendrils of sparks furiously pushing themselves to splutter into life. Eventually, tantalisingly, this pulse of energy reaches one quivering leaf at the end of a branch. Exposed to the wind, the leaf glows greeny-blue for a moment before softly dying out.

Every leaf is a face. But there are those that are curled up against the trunk, protected, and there are those that balance on the thinnest of branches exposed to the elements. One gust of wind could tear this leaf away. Another face forgotten. Another code lost to the eternal algorithm.

“…so that would make sense, considering what I mentioned yesterday about top-down brain function.”

I blink at my boyfriend. He asks me whether I understand. I hesitate, and tell him I do.

And all I can see is a leaf drifting away in the breeze, its edges still softly smouldering blue, like the glow around a piece of hot coal.