Emotional face-reading II: Lessons from autism

Can one become more emotionally literate? And is so, how fundamental a change is that?

In my last post I reported on research by Calin Prodan and colleagues on emotional face-reading. To summarise:
• most emotional information is displayed on the top half of the face
• subjects routinely watched the lower half of presented faces
• even when instructed to look at the upper, most looked at the lower
• the best face-readers looked at the top half
• good face-readers used the right (instinctual?) emotional brain
• poor face-readers used the left (learned) emotional brain
One can train oneself to look at the top half and therefore improve one’s face-reading.

This has been troubling me overnight, here’s why.

(First, the assumption that the eyes tell the emotional truth better than the mouth is a gross oversimplification. Paul Ekman showed that we reveal our true emotions via micro-expressions – flashes of small facial and bodily movements which betray what we really feel about something. A slight smirk, a tiny turn upward of the hand… Now let’s get even more complex, if I sit before two people, where does the emotional truth of the interaction lie? In the face of the speaker? What about her voice inflections? How about in the micro-expressions of the third person?)

Today I’ll concentrate on my second concern – training oneself to be a better face-reader.

I’ll come at it via autism. (NB autism is a spectrum, one which includes most people to some extent. ‘Geeks’ and ‘nerds’, for example, exemplify autistic obsessions with things, an exaggerated form of stereotypical male motivation.)

So poor are autistics at reading others’ emotions that they are described as having ‘mindblindness’. In ‘Blink’ Malcolm Gladwell describes research tracking of eye-movements of subjects being showed a movie scene. Regular folks looked mainly at the emotionally most telling element, while autistics look at objects and at the speaker’s mouth. If one character was showing a strong – even outrageous – emotional response to the speaker’s words, for example, the autistics missed it completely.

[I’m reminded of the basketball illusion. Download it here.]

Why does the autistic process others’ emotions so poorly? The autistic brain has not been wired in such a way that he or she can learn how to read the emotional minds of others. So they are poor emotional information gatherers.

Mainstream autistic therapy (ABA) trains autistics the rules and procedures of making sense of other people. In exactly the same way recommended in the face-reading research I reported on, autistics can be trained that a smile means that the person is happy, a frown that they’re sad and so on. The autistic functions better in the world, but is still almost almost emotionally illiterate – it is easy to lie to an autistic, they don’t get sarcasm, etc.And here’s the crucial point, the autistic’s brain is just as autistic after this training as before.

RDI is a radically different therapy for autism. Via the relationship between the autistic and (ideally) the parent, the brain of the autistic is rewired! (Perhaps this is the difference between training and education.) Now they read people’s faces just like others do, i.e. not through reference to rules, but through using the brain differently. Now they can empathise – their brains are no longer autistic!

Is the right emotional brain instinctual? No, rather, like so much other learning, what starts off in the left brain (which is ‘closer’ to rational thought) is then ‘relocated’ to the right brain (which is ‘closer’ to irrational intuition). It is here that the mirror neurons lie – these respond empathically to the emotions of others.

I come back to the question I raised yesterday, can training oneself to look at others’ emotional signals better improve one’s face-reading scores? And if it does, is one processing better information or processing information better? I.e. are you just as autistic as before, just better informed? Or, has the very act of concentrated attention on the human emotions begun to rewire the brain, and thus left you a little less autistic than before?

2 thoughts on “Emotional face-reading II: Lessons from autism

  1. I started “lone ranger” RDI (no consultant) with my 18yo last March. My daughter shows more ability to read my face and respond to it than she did before. One thing that helps is we sometimes do things in completely non-verbal mode. Since I am not talking and communicating with my face and body gestures, she learns to read more than the mouth.

    One skill that was surprisingly hard for her to learn was following my eye gaze. I literally had two cups at opposite ends of the room, and it took three weeks for her to figure out how to follow my eye gaze. The final key was getting an empty toilet paper roll to emphasize my eye movement. She got it and has taken off with it. She now follows eye gaze quite effectively in daily life!

    I am not sure whether or not her brain is rewired or she is better informed. My hope is that she can learn to recognize when people are bored by her strong interests or frustrated when she is doing something irritating so that she can think about what her options are. It must be very frustrating to have someone lash out at you when you had no idea they were growing more and more irritated moment by moment.

  2. tammy – The deficit you describe is so typical of autism and her quick (I know it doesn’t feel quick from your side!) learning to communicate with you eye-to-eye, as it it were, make it easy to think that you may well be witnessing fundamental rewiring at work. This is true learning – not just memorising one fact after another, but incorporating things deep into the self. Congratulations! The more I know about RDI the more certain I am that autism can be reversed after all.

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