Face-Blindness and Emotional Investment
Have you ever lost the ability to picture the face of someone important to you? No matter how hard you try, all you see is a vague outline, like an Impressionist painting.
More often than not, this temporary face-blindness occurs when there is a strong emotional charge (as in love). A character of Kierkegaard’s describes this situation well:
Have I become blind? Has the inner eye of the soul lost its power? I have seen her, but it is as if I had seen a heavenly revelation — so completely has her image vanished again for me. In vain do I summon all the powers of my soul in order to conjure up this image. If I ever see her again, I shall be able to recognize her instantly, even though she stands among a hundred others. Now she has fled, and the eye of my soul tries in vain to overtake her with its longing … it is as if presentiment and recollection were weaving an image that still cannot take definite shape for me, because I cannot make it stand still in context
On Quora, I saw someone ask why this occurs. Most of the answers alluded to some cognitive disorder like prosopagnosia (the inability to recognise faces) or aphantasia (the inability to create mental images). But these answers don’t address the selectivity of the face-blindness.
As Kierkegaard’s character describes, he can easily remember the faces of less important people: ‘The girl made an impression on me, and I forgot her; the other made no impression, and her I can remember’.
I believe that the answer lies in the Freudian concept of ‘cathexis’, which is the investing of mental energy into a person or object. The original German term, besetzung, is one ‘rich in suggestive meanings, among them “occupation” (by troops) and “charge” (of electricity)’. The more we perform cathexis, the more the object becomes emotionally (or libidinally) charged.
Face-blindness is like the static of cathexis; an imbalance of electric charges. The result is something like TV static.