Life-Size Faces

My long self-experimentation paper (Example 2) describes how I discovered that seeing faces in the morning improves my mood the next day. At the time I used TV faces. I tried different-sized TVs and found that the TV that produced the most life-size faces also produced the biggest effect. I also found that distance mattered: A conversational distance produced better results than a larger distance. The faces need to be looking at the camera. Clearly the TV faces were replacements for what our Stone-Age ancestors saw when they chatted with their neighbors soon after getting up. The faces/mood effect, I believe, is produced by a mechanism whose function was to synchronize the sleep and mood of people living together. It is hard to work with someone who is (a) asleep or (b) in a bad mood.

I needed 30-60 minutes of faces to get a big easy-to-notice effect. At first I used a variety of talk shows, then concentrated on two C-SPAN shows, Booknotes and Washington Journal. However, Booknotes is only once/week and Washington Journal is pretty boring. Soon after I wrote to C-SPAN suggesting they re-air old Booknotes, they started doing just that. Encore Booknotes was a regular feature of Book TV. But I still had to watch a lot of Washington Journal and I wasn’t as interested in politics as Brian Lamb.

Then I realized I could look at my own face in a mirror. This had the advantage that the face was exactly life-size. I listened to books or interviews or other stuff at the same time. Lately I have been listening to Authors@Google talks.

Today I realized I could also use the vlogs on YouTube, the ones where people speak right at the camera. I’ve known about them — who doesn’t, I suppose — for a long time but there have always been two problem: 1. Boring. 2. Too small. Today I came across a long series done by LucyinLA (a struggling actress named Laura Segura) and discovered that some of them were not boring, such as this one. There was still the problem that her face is a little too small. Then I realized I can increase the size of anything on my screen by increasing the display resolution (go to the Display icon on Control Panel).

Here’s an example of the right stimuli:

I still need to find enough non-boring vlogs but that shouldn’t be too hard. Whether I will switch to YouTube faces I don’t know but you, Dear Reader, can now see for yourself without any special equipment. You should look at the faces soon after you wake up in the morning.

Addendum: Nansen’s comment about using a cheap mirror shows that I think of a $5 mirror as “special equipment” and an internet-connected computer as not special. It’s true, I do. As for the best time to see faces, all I know is it’s quite early. I figured it out for myself by trial and error.

25 Replies to “Life-Size Faces”

  1. Changing the display resolution is far too much work.

    In Internet Express 7, just click on the zoom dropdown (bottom right corner, in the “status bar” along the bottom, which is set to visible on the Tools menu) and set the zoom to 400%. The entire page (text and all images) zooms by that factor, and a YouTube playback window will nearly fill a 1600 x 1200 screen. Use whatever percentage zoom gives the result you want.

  2. diarist, thanks for the suggestion. However, when I do that the wrong part of the screen (the upper left) is magnified. I need the center of the screen (where the face is) to be magnified.

    Brad, no. You shouldn’t have a lot of face to face conversations late at night to see the improvement in mood.

  3. When I first tried to use Seth’s mirror technique, I was too depressed to get out of bed so early in the morning. Even though I was taking anti-depressants, I could not lift my ear off the pillow. So one afternoon at a drugstore I bought a small mirror that swiveled on a little stand. By standing this small mirror on the mattress top, at arm’s length from my head, I could look into it at right angles. I was a horrible sight, yet somehow I got through the hour.

    After two days I could rotate my head, still on the pillow, upward toward the ceiling. I held the mirror above me at arm’s length, and when my arms got tired I alternated back to the first position. After two more days I could sit up, and I propped the mirror on a cardboard box by my knees. Finally, after several more days of these maneuvers, I could get out of bed for the treatment within an hour after sunrise.

    That was a year ago. This treatment may not be for everyone, it may even indirectly harm some people, but I swear by it for myself.

  4. Have you tried meeting people first thing in the morning?

    Even if none of your friends are interested in waking up so early or don’t have time before work, I’m sure you could find people on Craigslist who would be.

  5. Close to trying it, yes; actually trying it, no. It’s a density thing: travel time is a problem.

    A friend of mine told me that her mom came out of a major depression during a period when she had breakfast meetings.

  6. Too bad ze frank is off the air… he did the extreme closeup thing (sans blinking!). All the old shows are up.. might be worth watching.

    My GF/fiancee would think I was crazy if I stared in a mirror for an hour every day…though staring at her might be ok 🙂

  7. “diarist, thanks for the suggestion. However, when I do that the wrong part of the screen (the upper left) is magnified. I need the center of the screen (where the face is) to be magnified.”

    I had tried it on WinXPSP2, IE7, on a 1600×1200 screen; it worked for me. When I look at your sample YouTube video and zoom to 400%, I get scroll bars in both directions. Using these scroll bars, position the video panel to fill your screen. You can see any part of the magnified page, not just the upper left.

    (This is a sort of mal-feature in IE7, that when it zooms it magnifies the whole page [text, images, layout] like a telescope, and introduces scroll bars. Normally that’s not ideal–you’d usually like the page reflowed without horizontal scroll bars. But for your application of large faces, it works exactly right. AFAIK, Firefox 2 doesn’t work this way. Opera does. Don’t know about Safari. The recommendation was tried successfully only on IE7 on WinXP.)

  8. Thanks, diarist, for the detailed directions. I do get the scroll bars when I magnify the standard YouTube presentation — where the TV screen takes up about 10% of the screen. I don’t get the scroll bars when I increase the magnification after first going to full-screen view. The picture becomes much bigger but I only get the upper left portion of the screen — and no scroll bars to adjust.

    Magnifying the ordinary YouTube view by 400% usually isn’t enough, unfortunately. For example, this video, even when magnified by 400%, still has the face much too small:

  9. Seth, do you know if it’s required to look directly at the face? I was thinking I could put a large face on my desktop background and read webpages with my browser resized to just fill a small portion on the left of my screen, but then the face would be just outside of my focal point.

  10. I think you need to look directly at the face. But you have an interesting idea; maybe the face could fill the screen and the text be superimposed on it.

  11. Search for “alphaxp lite” to find a free program to make windows transparent. I’m going to try using that program with my web browser and a desktop background of a face to see if it helps. Do the faces need to be facing directly at you, or can they be at, say, a 45 degree angle from the camera?

  12. I’ve been using the faces method for some time now, with significant (but not perfect) success. I’ve found that the more directly the face looks at the camera the better results I get and that there is diminished efficacy when the face diverges even just 20 or 30 degrees from directly facing the camera. I also found that a more interesting and compelling speaker gets better results, most likely because it causes me to focus more closely on the speaker’s face.

    I too have tried Booknotes, which worked, but I eventually ran out of interesting lectures in which the speaker was facing directly at the camera. I also spent some time with You-Tube blogs (I also watched LucyinLA!) but found them unwieldy and impractical. The videos are typically very short and even the bloggers that most often provide a lot of face time vary in the amount of direct face time each particular one of their videos provides. Because of this, I ended up spending a lot of time looking for good videos, bouncing around among different videos and watching videos without a lot of good face time. It was difficult to get a quality 30 or 40 minutes of face time every day. However, if anybody wants, I can post a list of the bloggers that I found most helpful.

    I am currently using The Teaching Company lecture series. I’ve found that in some of the series the lecturers provide a more direct camera gaze for more of the time than in others and it is difficult to gauge before ordering how good a particular series will be. It’s also worth mentioning, in case any of you decide to order from them, that their website provides information on how prevalent visual aides (charts, graphs, photos) are in each series. The fewer visual aides the better, as they take away from direct face time.

    I asked The Teaching Company to post excerpts of their videos on their website (that way I can see which videos are better before ordering). Maybe if enough people request it they will listen!

    Janet: I was considering posting on Craigslist a while back but I decided that the post would sound pretty weird to most people who have never heard of the faces method and I would just attract a lot of strange characters (I live in NYC) as opposed to people with whom I would actually be able to have productive morning sessions.

    Finally, I wish there were a group study of people who tried the faces technique, so that we could know the percentages of people that achieved positive results. Seth, any thoughts on the likelihood of a study?

  13. I entered the Eastern Orthodox church a while ago, and the “wallpaper” of large icons, often faces, sometimes whole figures — in most churches distinguishes this tradition. One practice is to gaze at icons while praying. At what point of “reality” (obviously mirrors and videos are effective) in terms of stylization and motion do you think the cut-off might be for this phenomenon to be at work (not of course that I’m making a reductive suggestion that this is all there is going on)?

    As to collective religious wisdom, I seem to remember also that there were studies that Catholic monks who engaged frequently in Gregorian chant were healthier, less depressed, and needed less sleep, than monks where there was less chant. I don’t suppose you have undertaken any experiments with sonorous humming… 🙂

  14. I’ll be a little surprised if still photos work, but I haven’t tested them.

    In one experiment I did I compared sound + video of faces with sound alone — the sound alone did nothing. I think hearing voices can reduce feelings of loneliness but that is quite different than the faces effect.

  15. I don’t know. I’ve never tried them. They might fail because of what is called “rapid adaptation” in the nervous system — an example of which is the way the second sip of orange juice tastes quite different from the first. I do wonder if I would get better results looking at several faces, not just mine, over the course of an hour. But I haven’t yet tested that possibility.

  16. Can you be more specific about your mirror distances? I ask because mirrors have some properties that may not be obvious. You say that your face in the mirror is exactly life-sized. Actually, your own face in the mirror is exactly half life-sized. This means that if you stand three feet away, it would be like having a conversation with someone six feet away (makes sense, as the light is traveling six feet).

    Another question I have about your post is you theorize this effect is because people used to chat with their neighbors shortly after waking. What if this predates language? I can’t imagine 30-60 minutes of non-verbal communication to start your stone age day, but in any case stone age chatting was probably different than our chatting, and perhaps there’s something to that.

    Great blog!

  17. The mirror is about 1.0-1.5 feet away — making the face appear to be twice that distant. I don’t consciously measure it, I just try to make the face appear the proper distance for a conversation.

    I don’t understand the question “what if this predates language?” Could you make more explicit what the question is?

  18. I still do this, yes. But when I shift time zones (e.g., go from Beijing to Berkeley) I need to wait about 3 weeks before the effect regains full strength. I will soon post about using 2 faces rather than one.

  19. Thanks for the quick response Seth. I look forward to the updated article . Quick question, you stated that you get a mood boost , do you also feel more calm/ less general anxiety as well?

  20. The faces have three obvious effects on my mood/energy:

    1. I feel happier.

    2. I feel more eager to do things. If I think of doing something, I am more prone to do it, it is easier to do it. The opposite of procrastination. This is not the same as restlessness.

    3. I feel more serene, less irritated by this or that bad event. Less prone to react to it.

    I don’t feel general anxiety so I don’t know if the faces would lower it. One of my subjects found she had a sharp reduction in mild panic attacks when she started seeing faces.

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