Emotional face-reading I: The eyes have it

Look me in the eye! Don’t give me the evil eye! Talk about conflicting messages.

When social systems produce ambiguous messages we can be sure there’s something powerful at stake. Neurology researchers from the University of Oklahoma may have struck on why it’s both a good thing and a bad thing to look people directly in the eye.

Calin Prodan and colleagues found that subjects typically only look at the bottom half of faces when asked to read a face’s emotion.  Even when specifically asked to look at the upper half of presented faces most continued to look only at the bottom half. Perhaps this is habitual because of social norms discouraging looking directly at/into others’ eyes. (Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent piece on face-reading.)

Those who did look at the top halves of faces were better at accurately reading emotions. In part this is because the truth of our emotions is more readily available on the upper half of the face than the lower. This could be because we find it easy to fake smiles, etc., says Prodan. (Paul Ekman is the boffin on facial deceit.)

Not only did the good face-readers go to the better source of affective information, they used their brains in a very different way. Scans showed that good face-readers (upper-half) used the right side of the brain to process this information, while poor face-readers (bottom-half) used the left side. In other words, poor face-readers read faces according to the social, learned emotional system while good face-readers use the primary, inborn, emotional system.

“We certainly can,” says Prodan, “train ourselves to pay more attention to upper facial displays, which can help us to read a person’s true emotional state.”

Mm, I wonder about this. Studies often balls up cause and effect when all that’s been shown is a correlation. Is it that really the case that bad face-readers can become good face-readers in this way? Will their right brains automatically be activated somply because their gaze has beeen directed upwards? This seems unlikely – or at least needs to be established.

But by all means go for it. Just don’t blame me if someone says, “Whadda you looking at!”

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