The role of visual experience in the production of emotional facial expressions by blind people: a review

Psychon Bull Rev. 2018 Apr;25(2):483-497. doi: 10.3758/s13423-017-1338-0.


Facial expressions of emotion are nonverbal behaviors that allow us to interact efficiently in social life and respond to events affecting our welfare. This article reviews 21 studies, published between 1932 and 2015, examining the production of facial expressions of emotion by blind people. It particularly discusses the impact of visual experience on the development of this behavior from birth to adulthood. After a discussion of three methodological considerations, the review of studies reveals that blind subjects demonstrate differing capacities for producing spontaneous expressions and voluntarily posed expressions. Seventeen studies provided evidence that blind and sighted spontaneously produce the same pattern of facial expressions, even if some variations can be found, reflecting facial and body movements specific to blindness or differences in intensity and control of emotions in some specific contexts. This suggests that lack of visual experience seems to not have a major impact when this behavior is generated spontaneously in real emotional contexts. In contrast, eight studies examining voluntary expressions indicate that blind individuals have difficulty posing emotional expressions. The opportunity for prior visual observation seems to affect performance in this case. Finally, we discuss three new directions for research to provide additional and strong evidence for the debate regarding the innate or the culture-constant learning character of the production of emotional facial expressions by blind individuals: the link between perception and production of facial expressions, the impact of display rules in the absence of vision, and the role of other channels in expression of emotions in the context of blindness.

Keywords: Blind individuals; Emotion; Facial Expressions; Non-visual processes; Visual experience.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Blindness / physiopathology*
  • Blindness / psychology
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Vision, Ocular*