Of Botox and Empathy
Been considering Botox recently? Well, feeling good about the way you look might come at a cost! One that might significantly reduce your social circle. Recent research in Embodied cognition shows that the feedback generated by the facial muscles is not just essential for experiencing emotions but also for perception and understanding emotion in others i.e empathy
Let’s first talk about the subjective experience of emotions. In 1988, Strack et al. made participants hold a pencil in their teeth (doing this activates the muscles we use to smile) while rating cartoon clips for funniness. The group of participants that was being forced to smile in this way actually rated the cartoons as being funnier than the group that was not asked to hold a pencil in their teeth. People’s facial activity therefore, was found to influence their affective responses or subjective emotional experiences.
Coming to empathy – in 2011, Chartrand & Neal published a paper in which they put forward that we use facial micro-mimicry to empathize with others. This means that if a person is wincing in pain, an observer would also tend to do a ‘micro-wince’, and this tightening of muscles is what leads his brain to understand that the other person is in pain. The way that we understand others’ emotions, therefore, is by experiencing it ourselves. They hence devised a study where they recruited participants that had had Botox treatment in the last two weeks, asked them to look at photographs of human eyes and match them to the emotion they thought that person was feeling. Botox is a neuro-toxin which is used to temporarily remove frown lines. It has a somewhat paralyzing effect on facial muscles. These participants were significantly impaired in their ability to accurately identify and match these emotions when compared to a control group that hadn’t had the treatment. These participants couldn’t mimic the expressions they were seeing and hence their brain wasn’t interpreting the emotions accurately.
The proponents of embodied cognition believe that cognition is deeply dependent on the features of the physical body of an agent. And this physical factor plays a causal role in most cognitive processing. The state of your body at any time influences how you think. So the next time someone says, “Smile and you’ll feel better”, maybe it’s actually worth giving it a shot.