Let's take it as a given that protective facial coverings aren't going anywhere for a long time, and that they're one of the best ways to keep yourself and others safe from COVID-19 and other illnesses. They're still a problem in their own way, especially if you haven't yet mastered keeping your glasses from fogging up. One particular way masks disorient us has nothing to do with how they feel and everything with how they interfere with our brains.
Researchers in Canada and Israel have figured out one key way that covering most of your face can make others feel off-kilter. According a newly released paper, removing so much of the visual information we use to identify strangers versus people we recognize impairs our brain's ability to organize faces as faces. In fact, it makes neurotypical people remember faces with about the same comprehension as people who are medically face-blind.
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Think of how weird a face looks when you view it upside-down. Even if you're familiar with the face, it still hits different, because your brain is struggling to process that visual information; it doesn't look like what we think of as a face. And as one researcher put it, "If we can't create a holistic representation of a masked face, then our face recognition ability is more likely to fail."
This could underpin some of the reasons why some people feel uneasy about mask-wearing — but just because we understand what's going on doesn't mean we can stop protecting our noses and mouths when we're around other people. With two major COVID vaccines now being distributed in the United States, if we keep up with our mask-wearing, fingers crossed we won't have to deal with it by this time next year.