to convey different kinds of emotions, even extremely subtle changes in our emotions. It’s not a surprise that the brain has set aside a special area so we can quickly perceive and process this information.” No sooner do infants enter the world than they start looking for faces. Lee says it is a vital part of child development, even at this early age. “A newborn will quickly lock on to any faces in the environment,” he says. “Their eyes are driven to faces and, within 28 hours of age, they can already recognize their own mother’s face. We have an incredible affinity for faces, and that comes with an innate ability to orient to and recognize faces.” Masking Emotions? Given that affinity, it is not surprising that many now wonder about what cloaking half the face may mean not only for development, but also for social and emotional processing. With masks concealing the suggestive contortions of the mouth and nose—which can signal the difference between a smile and a sneer—how might day-to-day mask-wearing affect how we perceive others, and they us? at photos of individuals who had standard medical masks digitally added to the picture, and determine whether the faces depicted anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, or neutral emotion. Immediately following, the study participants were asked to assess their confidence in their judgment on a scale of one to seven (“very unconfident” to “very confident”). He says he was not surprised that participants had more difficulty judging emotions, especially between photos of happy and emotionally neutral faces. He has since replicated the results in a group of children between the ages of nine and ten years, though the results have not yet been published. “If you don’t have as much information about the face, it makes sense that processing will be hampered,” Carbon says. “But what we also saw was that participants had lower confidence in their own perceptual ability when reading those faces. Given that emotional expressions are one of the most efficient ways of communicating to other people, this is something that does have an impact. People will have to rely on other cues, like context or a person’s tone or gestures, to help them understand what emotion a person may be trying to express.” Ashley Ruba , a post-doctoral fellow in Claus-Christian Carbon , a perceptual psychol- ogist at Germany’s University of Bamberg, says he was curious about whether a mask might impede how people read emotions. He asked 36 individuals between the ages of 18 and 87 to look espite ongoing concerns about m interviewed for this piece were adamant being infected with Covid-19 and sufferin far outweigh risks related to the loss of
“This is probably the question, as a developmental psychologist, I’ve been asked the most lately by colleagues and other parents,” says Vanessa LoBue, director of the Child Study Center at Rutgers University. “Parents are
worried that making their kids wear a face mask could have unintended consequences. People are asking me whether their kids will be able to understand what their teachers are saying—or the social and emotional nuances of what’s being communicated to them so they can learn how to appropriately respond to it. They want to know if it’s going to cause unnecessary anxiety in their kids, if it’s going to get in the way of normal development. There are definitely a lot of questions.” Human faces, to steal a line from Walt Whitman, contain multitudes. Whether it’s the righteous joy embodied by an open-mouthed laugh or the subtle contempt of a curled lip, people of all ages rely on others’ faces to help them navigate their social environments. Our expressions, whether we intend them to or not, convey all manner of vital information. Those bashful smiles and pursed lips reveal quite a bit about what we feel—and offer guidance to others on how to best respond to us. This is especially the case if our words and expressions do not match.
“There are a lot of things that are really important for human communication,” says Seth Pollak , head of the Child Emotion Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And human faces are definitely one of the most important of them.”
Something Special About Faces In order to make our way in the world, human beings, like other animals, need to be able to recognize objects. The world is full of things that can help us or hinder us as we navigate our surroundings; distinguishing between the two is vital. Faces, however, are a special kind of object. So special, in fact, that they have their own specific real estate in the brain, the fusiform face area in the temporal lobe, which is solely responsible for facial recognition. Kang Lee , head of the Development Lab at the University of Toronto, says humans, as a social species, rely on faces to glean information about emotions and social interactions from quite an early age. That information then helps inform our behavior. “As humans evolved from [non-human] primates, we shed a lot of facial hair,” he explains. “There’s good reason for it—it highlights the eyes and other facial features so we can read important information about another person. By just looking at a face you can see what group or race they belong to, their age, and whether they are male or female. Once you make social contact, the face also is a source of emotional information. The brain can very efficiently manipulate the facial muscles
Pollak’s lab at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, with Pollak, conducted a similar experiment on 81 children between ages 7 to 13.
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