Ambiguity in Facial Expressions
How good are you at detecting emotions?
Followers of this blog have by now read extensively about basic emotions and the many characteristic features present in each. Perhaps this has made emotional recognition seem pretty simple. All we have to do is look at the lips, eyebrows, and other facial features, and we can conclude that someone is angry or sad, right?
Unfortunately, the reality is not that simple. Our brains do not deduce emotional states so rigorously (though they can be trained to!). Instead, we come to an immediate intuition as to another person’s expression from a broad interpretation of their overall facial features.
Moreover, we are often not very good at recognizing expressions. Untrained individuals generally have a difficult time identifying facial expressions, relying instead on feelings of empathy to come to understand other people.
This discussion is relevant, because not all expressions are even as obvious as our prototypes suggest. Certainly, there are universal basic emotions, such as fear and joy, but are all emotions as clear as being purely one or the other? Instead, many expressions, in reality, are ambiguous or offer subtle differences in intensity.
A recent study from the California Institute of Technology sought to explore these ambiguous expressions by analyzing the role that our brain’s amygdala has in making judgments about ambiguous or intense emotions.
These researchers analyzed brain activity within the amygdala when patients were shown pictures of people expressing fear or happiness, at different levels of intensity. They were also shown neutral or ambiguous emotions. Interestingly, two distinct groups of neurons responded to the facial expressions.
One of these neuron groups would activate intensely when exposed to strong emotions but was more muted during exposure to moderate or subtle expressions. Different neurons within this group correlated with fear and happiness. The other neuron group fired according to perceived ambiguity, regardless of the expression displayed.
The very fact that our amygdala has such an active role in identifying both intensity and ambiguity in emotional recognition helps better understand why emotional recognition can be so difficult. The amygdala is deeply connected with anxiety and fear centers, both of which infamously contribute to failures in recognizing emotions.
Study co-author Ueli Ruthishauser elaborated, saying “Researchers at multiple institutions are currently evaluating whether deep-brain stimulation of the amygdala is effective in treating severe cases of autism or post-traumatic stress disorder.”
As science continues to unravel the neurological underpinnings behind emotional recognition, we better understand how failures at reading these expressions can be solved and addressed.