New research reveals more about how the brain processes facial expressions and emotions

October 15, 2012

Research released today helps reveal how human and primate brains process and interpret facial expressions, and the role of facial mimicry in everything from deciphering an unclear smile to establishing relationships of power and status. The findings were presented at Neuroscience 2012, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

Facial mimicry—a social behavior in which the observer automatically activates the same as the person she is imitating—plays a role in learning, understanding, and rapport. Mimicry can activate muscles that control both smiles and frowns, and evoke their corresponding emotions, positive and negative. The studies reveal new roles of facial mimicry and some of its underlying .

Today's new findings show that:

  • Special brains cells dubbed "" activate in the amygdala of a monkey looking into the eyes of another monkey, even as the monkey mimics the expressions of its counterpart (Katalin Gothard, MD, PhD, abstract 402.02, see attached summary).
  • Social status and self-perceptions of power affect facial mimicry, such that powerful individuals suppress their smile mimicry towards other high-status people, while powerless individuals mimic everyone's smile (Evan Carr, BS, abstract 402.11, see attached summary).
  • Brain imaging studies in monkeys have revealed the specific roles of different regions of the brain in understanding facial identity and , including one brain region previously identified for its role in vocal processing (Shih-pi Ku, PhD, abstract 263.22, see attached summary).
  • Subconscious facial mimicry plays a strong role in interpreting the meaning of ambiguous smiles (Sebastian Korb, PhD, abstract 402.23, see attached summary).
Another recent finding discussed shows that:
  • Early difficulties in interactions between parents and infants with cleft lip appear to have a neurological basis, as change in a baby's facial structure can disrupt the way adult brains react to a child (Christine Parsons, PhD, see attached speaker's summary).
"Today's findings highlight the role of facial expressions in communication and social behavior," said press conference moderator Ruben Gur, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, an expert on behavior and brain function. "Brain circuits that interpret the face appear ever more specialized, from primate 'eye cells,' to brain feedback that enables us to discern meaning through facial mimicry." This research was supported by national funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as private and philanthropic organizations.

Explore further: Lack of empathy following traumatic brain injury linked to reduced responsiveness to anger

More information: www.sfn.org/am2012/pdf/press/Faces.pdf

Related Stories

Lack of empathy following traumatic brain injury linked to reduced responsiveness to anger

June 28, 2011
Egocentric, self-centred, and insensitive to the needs of others: these social problems often arise in people with severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) and have been attributed in part to a loss of emotional empathy, the capacity ...

Recommended for you

Neuron types in brain are defined by gene activity shaping their communication patterns

September 21, 2017
In a major step forward in research, scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) today publish in Cell a discovery about the molecular-genetic basis of neuronal cell types. Neurons are the basic building blocks that ...

Gene immunotherapy protects against multiple sclerosis in mice

September 21, 2017
A potent and long-lasting gene immunotherapy approach prevents and reverses symptoms of multiple sclerosis in mice, according to a study published September 21st in the journal Molecular Therapy. Multiple sclerosis is an ...

Your neurons register familiar faces, whether you notice them or not

September 21, 2017
When people see an image of a person they recognize—the famous tennis player Roger Federer or actress Halle Berry, for instance—particular cells light up in the brain. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on ...

Touching helps build the sexual brain

September 21, 2017
Hormones or sexual experience? Which of these is crucial for the onset of puberty? It seems that when rats are touched on their genitals, their brain changes and puberty accelerates. In a new study publishing September 21 ...

Highly precise wiring in the cerebral cortex

September 21, 2017
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the cerebral cortex of mammals, where, among other things, vision, thoughts or spatial ...

Faulty cell signaling derails cerebral cortex development, could it lead to autism?

September 20, 2017
As the embryonic brain develops, an incredibly complex cascade of cellular events occur, starting with progenitors - the originating cells that generate neurons and spur proper cortex development. If this cascade malfunctions ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.