Inability to move one's face dampens facial expression perception

Cortex. 2023 Dec:169:35-49. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2023.08.014. Epub 2023 Sep 30.


Humans rely heavily on facial expressions for social communication to convey their thoughts and emotions and to understand them in others. One prominent but controversial view is that humans learn to recognize the significance of facial expressions by mimicking the expressions of others. This view predicts that an inability to make facial expressions (e.g., facial paralysis) would result in reduced perceptual sensitivity to others' facial expressions. To test this hypothesis, we developed a diverse battery of sensitive emotion recognition tasks to characterize expression perception in individuals with Moebius Syndrome (MBS), a congenital neurological disorder that causes facial palsy. Using computer-based detection tasks we systematically assessed expression perception thresholds for static and dynamic face and body expressions. We found that while MBS individuals were able to perform challenging perceptual control tasks and body expression tasks, they were less efficient at extracting emotion from facial expressions, compared to matched controls. Exploratory analyses of fMRI data from a small group of MBS participants suggested potentially reduced engagement of the amygdala in MBS participants during expression processing relative to matched controls. Collectively, these results suggest a role for facial mimicry and consequent facial feedback and motor experience in the perception of others' facial expressions.

Keywords: Emotion perception; Facial experience; Facial expressions; Facial feedback; Facial mimicry.

MeSH terms

  • Emotions
  • Facial Expression
  • Facial Paralysis* / etiology
  • Facial Paralysis* / psychology
  • Facial Recognition*
  • Humans
  • Mobius Syndrome* / complications
  • Perception
  • Social Perception