Blind Athletes Provide Clues About the Nature of our Emotions
By Melanie Tannenbaum for Scientific American
One of the most important ways that we learn how to interact with the world around us is through observational learning. By watching how our friends and family members behave, we learn at a very young age how to do things like turn on a lightbulb, open a door, or play with a doll, without having to suffer through a tedious trial-by-error reinforcement process every single time we need to learn how to do something new. It’s only natural to assume that we have similarly learned when to smile politely, how to wrinkle our noses in disgust, or why we should furrow our brows in anger by watching the people around us react in those ways when presented with similar emotionally-evocative situations.
But what if observational learning isn’t the only way in which we figure out how to express our emotions? What if those emotional expressions — or at least, some of them — actually come “pre-programmed” into our very nature, and we would make those grimaces, brow-furrows, and polite smiles of thinly-veiled contempt without ever once seeing others make those expressions first?
In a recent study, David Matsumoto and Bob Willingham studied photographs from the Judo competition in the 2004 Olympic Games to examine the athletes’ facial expressions. Predictably, the researchers found that gold and bronze medalists were more likely to display broad smiles and patterns of facial muscle activation that signal genuine happiness, whereas silver medalists were more likely to display “fake” smiles or expressions of contempt and disgust.
This effect had been found in research before, and it wouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy, had it not been for one important fact:
Approximately half of the athletes in the photos were blind. In fact, half of the blind athletes had been so since birth, meaning they had never directly observed another person’s emotional expressions.
Not only did both congenitally and noncongenitally blind athletes spontaneously produce emotional facial expressions after winning or losing, their expressions were practically identical to those of the sighted athletes. The blind athletes — even those who had never been able to see for a single day in their lives — not only displayed genuine smiles after winning, they also displayed expressions of contempt or politely fake smiles after losing. Somehow, without ever having seen another person’s face, they still knew what to do with their own faces when they won or lost. For researchers who had been arguing that emotions are “hardwired” and emotional displays like smiles or frowns are biologically determined (rather than learned through culture or social interactions), this finding was a big-time win.
The researchers acknowledge that the congenitally blind athletes’ expressions still could have been socially conditioned. Family members and friends could have verbally reinforced appropriate expressions throughout their lives, so this study is not necessarily proof that emotional displays are completely biologically hardwired. However, this study does show that observation is not necessary in order to learn emotional display and regulation. And, for whatever it’s worth, close others would not be able to verbally reinforce appropriate emotional displays if the blind individuals had never spontaneously generated those expressions in the first place.
To a certain extent, it seems that the way we display our emotions really might come to us naturally.