The face mask


Although the face is not usually peeled back completely during autopsy, in accessing the brain, the pathologist will often peel back some of the face and expose the fat, muscle, blood vessels and tendons below the skin. 

This is frequently enough to make medical students go weak at the knees.  The sudden de-humanising reality – that immediately below the exterior we are all essentially meat – is a shock for most people.

The human face is, of course, an amazing feat of evolution.  It provides us with the capacity for essential interactions with our environment so that we can breathe, eat, drink, see, smell, taste and output sound.

It is also crucially important for giving rich, detailed, vital and emotionally satisfying information during our verbal communication with others.

It helps us with issues of ‘meaning’ like awareness of our own mortality, such that when we feel sad or despairing, another person’s empathetic and kind facial expressions help us feel less alone in the vast universe.

Every day ‘the face’ deceives and ‘tricks’ us all into social cohesion and makes us believe we are more than animals.  That we are significant and better than meat.  Every day this motivates us to love and connect with others and to try harder to make the world a better place.

But without the face our social connection is easily lost.

With COVID mask-wearing, most people start to feel alienated, flat, withdrawn and miserably alone – without the daily warmth of facial interaction with others.  

Still other people, instead of ‘feeling’ their true sadness about the pandemic deflect their unresolved sorrow into anger, and with the anonymity provided by the face mask, they act out more than usual.

Only yesterday, I was in a quite ‘posh’ supermarket when civility disintegrated instantly and two women almost came to blows over a complete misunderstanding. 

One of the women was closer to me than the other woman, and the closer woman said to the woman further away, ‘please go ahead – I think you were before me in the queue’. 

The woman further away could not hear well and she could not read the other woman’s facial expression of likely congeniality (since we were all ‘masked up’). 

As a result, she assumed the closer woman was jumping in ahead of her in the queue.  A total misreading of the situation. 

Within seconds she fired up, becoming highly abusive – glaring, chest puffing and calling her a ‘f… idiot’ amongst many other extreme and misogynist terms. 

It was so tense, there could easily have been a physical fight – until she angrily stormed off, believing she was both the victim and the champion of civil behaviour in queues.  

Yet, wearing masks is obviously crucially important at the moment until we get COVID under control – so we need to stay the course.  But we should also be aware of how much our ‘humanity’ can be impoverished by losing ready access to the face. 

In the meantime, let’s stop being angry, curb the conspiracy theories, slow down, be patient, accept these temporary limitations, be kind and take extra care not to misinterpret each other. 

If nothing else, by its temporary absence, these times will teach us about the real comfort, reassurance and humanity that is exuded between us all from the evolutionary ‘trick’ that is the magnificently expressive human face.