How do we "read" facial expressions?

    • Topic: Human Biology

    • Location: Hall of Human Life

    Humans are experts at recognizing and reading other people’s faces. We use our expertise to make guesses about a person’s mood and background (e.g., approximate age), which helps us figure out how to interact with them. We become experts because parts of our brains are specialized for processing faces. In fact, our brain processes faces so quickly that we can judge the emotion in a face we don’t even realize we have seen.

    Previous studies have shown that looking at faces changes the way we think about new faces. For example, after seeing many happy faces, neutral faces will begin to look angrier. This change is called adaptation. We are exploring what kinds of things might change how people see faces and whether children change in different ways than adults.

    In this study, people (2 – 75 years) will see a series of emotional faces and/or hear emotional voices. Then, people will see a new face and have to guess the emotion it is showing. We predict that people will change the way they interpret the emotion in a face the most after seeing faces and hearing voices conveying the same emotions, compared to opposing emotions.

    This study will help us understand how our brain combines information from different senses when judging the emotions of others. What we learn may help us better understand developmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder, or disorders in adults, such as social anxiety.

    This research is conducted at the Museum of Science, Boston by Dr. Vivian Ciaramitaro and the UMass Boston Baby Lab.

        » UMass Boston BabyLab

    Activities to Try in the Hall of Human Life

    Do you ever forget a face?

    Find the “Do you ever forget a face?” link station in the Communities environment. Are you more of an expert when it comes to remembering certain types of faces compared to others? What role does familiarity play in this activity?

    Activities to Try at Home

    Color reversal

    Your sensory cells (the ones that let you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch) adapt to information too. For example, if you hold your hand on something that is very warm for a long period of time the next thing you touch will feel cold. To experience this with your eyes look at the strangely colored rainbow below.

    Stare at the plus sign in the center of the image for 30 to 60 seconds. Try not to blink and do not shift your eyes. After, look away at a blank wall and blink your eyes rapidly. What do you see? How have your eyes (and your brain) adapted?

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