Stone faced

The extent to which emotions are shown and felt in the body as well as in consciousness is being uncovered. Facial expressions are an example but also posture and bodily feelings. A recent paper looks at the effect of an immobilized face on remembering and recalling emotional words. This adds to previous experiments on the initial recognition of emotional words. This face-emotion tie is a case of embodiment. By and large we automatically show our emotions on our faces and we read others’ emotions from their faces. Further if we force our face into the expression of a particular emotion, we feel that emotion. It is a two-way street as far as communicating and displaying emotion. What about processing emotion? Can the response to emotional words be affected by the face? Yes.

Here is the abstract for the paper (Baumeister, Rumiati, Foroni; When the mask falls: The role of facial motor resonance in memory for emotional language; Acta Psychologica Vol 155, Feb 2015; doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2014.11.012): “The recognition and interpretation of emotional information (e.g., about happiness) has been shown to elicit, amongst other bodily reactions, spontaneous facial expressions occurring in accordance to the relevant emotion (e.g. a smile). Theories of embodied cognition act on the assumption that such embodied simulations are not only an accessorial, but a crucial factor in the processing of emotional information. While several studies have confirmed the importance of facial motor resonance during the initial recognition of emotional information, its role at later stages of processing, such as during memory for emotional content, remains unexplored. The present study bridges this gap by exploring the impact of facial motor resonance on the retrieval of emotional stimuli. In a novel approach, the specific effects of embodied simulations were investigated at different stages of emotional memory processing (during encoding and/or retrieval). Eighty participants underwent a memory task involving emotional and neutral words consisting of an encoding and retrieval phase. Depending on the experimental condition, facial muscles were blocked by a hardening facial mask either during encoding, during retrieval, during both encoding and retrieval, or were left free to resonate (control). The results demonstrate that not only initial recognition but also memory of emotional items benefits from embodied simulations occurring during their encoding and retrieval.

Processing into memory and retrieval from memory was inhibited for emotional words but not for neutral words when movement of facial muscles was blocked. “Benefits from embodied simulations” is one way to look at it. But it implies that emotion is not an activity of the whole body but of just the brain with the body doing some assistance (although I suspect the authors feel the assistance is very important). Over the spectrum of emotions we have the involvement to varying degrees of the bodies muscles including gut feelings, heart rate, breathing rate, flushing/blushing, goose bumps, skin temperature, hair movements, pupil size as well as skeletal muscles. This is not a little simulation add-on. We often feel the fright a fraction sooner than we recognize the danger. It sometimes takes a long time to figure out what exactly made us feel angry. And in a social animal the communication of emotion is important to peace and cooperation. We communicate automatically with face, voice, posture, and actions. It takes great skill and concentration to hide “tells”.

I think we should view emotions as integrated reactions of our whole body (the whole nervous system, not just our brain/mind) to our environment.


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