Emotional and facial recognition may be even more closely linked than we thought.
In past blogs, we have discussed how better understanding facial recognition may help us better understand emotional recognition, and we have also talked about how understanding emotions requires similar processes as those which identify faces.
During that discussion, we explained how recognizing faces is an often instantaneous process that synthesizes not only facial features but also assesses deviations from the norm to determine emotional states.
But we have not discussed how different emotions may make facial recognition harder! A recent study by Dr. Annabelle Redfern from the University of Bristol found that, with unfamiliar faces, different emotional expressions significantly hamper our ability to identify the faces.
Dr. Redfern exposed participants to images of actors in movie stills, monitoring how long it took them to learn how to identify that actor in subsequent images. While this seems straightforward, she also divided the participants into two experimental groups.
The first group was exposed to actors with generally expressionless or “neutral” faces. This first set of images didn’t show a particularly emotive face, while the second group was exposed to pictures showing distinctive emotional expressions.
The researchers found that participants had a harder time learning from the emotional images than from the neutral ones, both in terms of a lower level of accuracy and a slower response time. Similarly, when groups of respondents training to identify neutral faces were asked to apply this knowledge to more expressive faces, they faltered and were significantly less accurate.
As Dr. Redfern concluded, “The differences we found point to the idea that facial expressions and facial identity are not treated separately by our brains; and instead, we may mentally store someone’s expressions along with their faces.”
It is important to note that this was done with unfamiliar faces, as we almost instantaneously can recognize familiar ones. However, this results in important practical implications.
For example, witness testimony in legal proceedings often depends on facial recognition, but this can become difficult if a witness got a glimpse of a face with one expression and now sees that face with a quite similar expression.
We already know that faces are incredibly central to human interaction, but facial recognition may also be fundamental to our brain’s development.
Science has long demonstrated that even newborn infants have a strong preference for human faces over other stimuli. Now, a new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, may have found that our preference for faces begins even before birth itself!
These researchers exposed fetuses to triangles of red dots which sought to mimic facial structures, by representing the triangle that two eyes and a mouth create in a real face. In fact, past research has shown that such triangles serve as similar stimuli to faces for newborn children.
After projecting these dots into the fetus’ peripheral vision, researchers slowly moved them away from the fetus’ line of sight. Amazingly, ultrasound pictures show that a significant number of fetus’ moved their heads to follow the dots. While this was still a minority of total exposures, when contrasted with nonfacelike triangles, the fetuses reacted almost three times as often.
While some critics have said that it is too early to conclude any level of actual facial recognition, the very method of projecting images into the womb has yielded praise. Scott Johnson, a developmental psychologist uninvolved in the study, said the method “opens up all kinds of new doors to understand human development,” adding that it was “very, very exciting.”
While it may be premature to conclude a preference for faces at this stage in development, such a conclusion would be consistent with previous research that has found a consistent preference for human faces amongst newborn babies, within minutes of birth.
For example, a 1974 study showed newborns images of faces after only nine minutes. They found that the newborns would follow these faces as they moved for longer than they would for similar images of unintelligible images.
Subsequent research found that, within hours, babies would be able to differentiate their mother’s face from strangers, showing a preference for their mother. What is most striking about this is the speed at which young humans learn how to recognize and differentiate faces.
Similar research has even found that newborns, after only a day, show increased preference towards “beautiful faces.” These researchers contended that such faces better represent the stereotypical or “prototypical” human face, helping to explain these surprising results.
If facial recognition is really this deeply ingrained in our brain’s development, it would help explain the notion of universal emotions that span cultures. Followers of this blog will be familiar with the notion of universal basic emotions, and of the idea that these have an evolutionary origin.
How important is language in communication really?
This may seem like a silly question, but in such a large and diverse world, the myriad of languages present particular challenges to jetsetters and tourists of all sorts. No matter how many languages you know, the intrepid world traveler can never be fluent in the language of every nation. What can we do to better communicate if we don’t speak the same language?
The good news is that, according to Humintell’s own Dr. David Matsumoto, language is not actually the most important factor in cross cultural communication. Instead, a few simple phrases, combined with a focus on positive nonverbal communication can go a long way towards promoting communication without fluency.
As Dr. Matsumoto says in an interview with Psychology Today: “If you are good at non-verbal communication then you can go anywhere without knowing the language and you will get along.”
He elaborates on the fact that language is really just one part of a given interaction. In every conversation, our body language, facial expression, and gestures convey a wealth of information concerning our intentions and emotions.
In fact, sometimes linguistic fluency, if divorced from nonverbal behavior, can lead to conflict and misunderstanding. “Verbal language by itself only communicates a certain amount of content,” Dr. Matsumoto explains, “People can be saying the content they want to communicate, but just not come across correctly.”
Many of us who learned foreign language in school focused on memorizing verb tables, practicing vocabulary, and translating written documents. However, that leaves out the important aspect of body language, which can vary between cultures. Instead, Dr. Matsumoto points out that “data shows that language classes that incorporate non-verbal communication and culture in their curricula fair better.”
So, we’ve established the importance of non-verbal communication, but exactly how should this be practiced?
Followers of this blog will be familiar with the seven basic emotions. There are certain emotional expressions that span cultural divides across the planet, such as happiness, anger, and disgust.
Dr. Matsumoto emphasizes only one of these: joy. This is the clearest emotion, as “all other emotions are prone to misunderstanding… but positivity is not usually misinterpreted.” Based on his advice, we should approach intercultural communication sporting a smile and making a pointed effort to learn about their culture.
Pairing this with even a rudimentary understanding of language can also help. Dr. Matsumoto recommends learning basic, positive phrases like “good morning,” or “thank you,” which “go a long way to greasing many interactions.”