Our own facial expressions play an essential part in understanding other people’s emotions

Human learn to show emotions through facial expressions very early in life. Babies learn how to express happiness and sadness by mimicking their caregivers’ expressions. Sharing smiles and eye contact forms a huge part of the bonding process between parent and child. even as adults, we use facial expressions to let others into our emotional life, as well as to respond to the emotions of others.

Facial feedback hypothesis

Charles Darwin Facial feedback hypothesisThe facial feedback hypothesis was first proposed by Charles Darwin; who believed that our facial expressions enhanced our emotional experiences. Psychologists like William James then went on to suggest that emotion is caused by facial expression; and that if we did not contort our faces (or think of doing so), we would not feel emotion.

Although it is now well established that facial expression enhances (not causes) the extent to which we experience emotion; it also seems that forcing ourselves to express an emotion  can also influence our own emotions.

So when you put on a fake smile at a social event, you are actually doing yourself a favour; since you will soon start to feel better just because you are smiling so much.

Recently, studies have found that facial feedback – the facial experiences we make when experiencing emotions – can affect a variety of social experiences – including understanding and responding to the emotional and social needs of others.

How does it work?

The exact mechanism that controls the impact of facial feedback – aka – our facial expressions on our ability to understand the emotions of others is under debate. But scientists believe that when we mirror somebody’s emotions in our expressions, it helps engage multiple mental processes. Thus, the chances of accurately understanding and responding to an emotion increases.

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Another theory suggests that we make automatic connections between expressions and emotions through constant practice. For example, we associate happiness with a smile; and anger with a frown. Mirroring an expression activates this automatic connection and allows us to interpret the emotion correctly. This is a little like using facial feedback to ‘try on‘ an emotion to understand it.

Some people are better at facial feedback than others

Not everyone’s emotional experience is so strongly associated with their own facial reactions. Per Andréasson and Ulf Dimberg conducted a research study which suggests that people who are highly empathetic can understand emotions more effectively when they mirror these emotions.

So if you are someone who quickly empathizes with others, you are more likely to understand their emotions when you mimic their expressions. But for a person who does not empathize as easily, keeping a stoic face – or even showing the opposite emotional expression – does not interfere with their understanding.

What makes empathetic people more dependent on facial feedback? Dimberg found that people with high emotional empathy mirrored emotions with distinct facial expressions and also experienced the emotion at the same time.
On the other hand, people with low emotional empathy neither experienced the emotion, nor  mirrored the expression as strongly. Thus, it is likely that very empathetic people’s brains tend to depend more on information from their own emotional experience when they are trying to understand the emotions of another person.

Botox = trouble identifying emotions 

Taylor Armstrong-botoxIt is not surprising then, that using Botox is associated with mistakes in recognizing emotions. People inject Botox into facial muscles to prevent sagging skin and to maintain a youthful look. But for some time after being injected with Botox, the muscle in question stays stiff, giving the individual an impassive, frozen look.

Research conducted on people whose faces are injected with Botox shows that they tend to make more mistakes when asked to identify the emotions of people they saw in photographs or on film. It would seem that since their own faces were unable to provide emotional information, these people found to difficult to understand what other people were feeling. This confusion occurs for both positive and negative emotions.

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On the other hand, people who were more aware of their facial expressions became better at identifying the emotions of others. In the same experiment, participants applied a special gel face-mask so that they became more aware of how their facial muscles moved. These people typically recognized the emotions of others more correctly – possibly because their brain could ‘hear’ the feedback from their face muscles loud and clear.

Implications for autism

The ability to empathize with others is an important social trait. Autism, or Autism spectrum disorder is a condition in which the individual has trouble with communication using language, facial expressions and eye contact, as well as having trouble learning abstract concepts, and picking up social cues. The disorder develops in early childhood; and thus interferes with the child’s ability to learn social information efficiently.

People with autism spectrum issues consistently struggle with not only expressing their own emotions, but also with understanding the emotions of others. It turns out, that part of their confusion may stem from how their brains process incoming information about other people’s emotions.

Researchers have found that people with autism spectrum symptoms experienced a lot lesser facial feedback as compared to other people. Even when they consciously mimicked the expressions they saw, these individuals still struggled to recognizing the emotion.  This data could explain why one of the biggest social challenges for people with autism and related conditions is interpreting emotionals, and consequently responding to them.