IF ONE PERSON in a room is smiling, everyone else is smiling along, even if they don’t know it.
Growing evidence shows that an instinct for facial mimicry allows us to empathise with and even experience other people’s feelings. If we can’t mirror another person’s face, it limits our ability to read and properly react to their expressions. A review of this emotional mirroring appeared this week in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
In their paper, Paula Niedenthal and Adrienne Wood, social psychologists at the University of Wisconsin, and colleagues describe how people in social situations simulate others’ facial expressions to create emotional responses in themselves.
For example, if you’re with a friend who looks sad, you might “try on” that sad face yourself–without realising you’re doing so.
In “trying on” your friend’s expression, it helps you to recognise what they’re feeling by associating it with times in the past when you made that expression. Humans extract this emotional meaning from facial expressions in a matter of only a few hundred milliseconds.
You reflect on your emotional feelings and then you generate some sort of recognition judgment, and the most important thing that results is that you take the appropriate action-you approach the person or you avoid the person,” Niedenthal says.
A person’s inability to replicate facial expressions is a common complaint for people with central or peripheral motor diseases, like facial paralysis from a stroke or Bell’s palsy.
People with social disorders associated with mimicry and/or emotion-recognition impairments, like autism, can experience similar challenges.
“There are some symptoms in autism where lack of facial mimicry may in part be due to suppression of eye contact,” Niedenthal says.