Face makes on a line

Finding faces during a pandemic

By Maggie Chen. Mentored and edited by Katie Moisse.

Elmo, the Sesame Street icon, bounced onto students’ screens during 2021 in a back-to-school public safety announcement. Face adorned in a colorful mask dotted with tractors and trucks, Elmo exclaimed, “At school, Elmo wears a mask and stays apart from his friends!”

Elmo’s mask-wearing reflected the precautionary measures made so pervasive by the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turns out, mask-wearing also raised critical questions – if we obscured the face, what would we focus on when seeing another person? How would we show emotions, or engage in conversation?

The face is an enormously complex center for emotional projection and signal transmission, according to experts at the Feb. 20, 2022, presentation of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS annual meeting). With the increased prevalence of mask-wearing and videoconferencing during COVID-19, understanding how humans process faces has only become more important.

“The face is central to our sense of self,” says Jill Helms, a professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Stanford University. “It’s the face that is the characteristic most embodied in a human being.”

Helms, who studies embryonic development and facial defects, is also a lobbyist for a non-profit organization called Changing Faces, which aims to both advocate for those treated unfairly due to their facial appearance and to help people cope with their own facial differences.

According to Helms, these facial differences contribute to increased scrutiny from others. This scrutiny, in turn, can lead to the feeling of not belonging.

“For some of the people I know with facial differences, they’ve expressed that mask wearing has levelled the playing field – it has removed some of the scrutiny that they usually experience without a mask,” she says. “And I think that has meant some comfort to them.”

Remote video calls, by contrast, can increase the scrutiny because they singularly focus on the face. “Now we have these zoom calls, where, let’s face it, all we are [are] faces in a box,” Helms says.

For those with prosopagnosia, or difficulty recognizing facial identity, these remote video calls can provide significant benefit. Because these video calls label participants with their names, Bradley Duchaine, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth University, says that the remote environment is akin to “wander[ing] into a world where everybody’s wearing name tags.”

Duchaine notes that by studying those with prosopagnosia and other facial recognition disorders, the “blueberry-sized” brain regions that are important for facial processing can be identified and characterized. An interesting future area of study, then, would be to leverage these neurological systems to study face processing from a broader perspective – looking at facial expression recognition as well as facial identity.

Paula Niedenthal, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, studies the role of emotional processing through facial expressions and other bodily presentations. Facial expressions, she says, are integrated with things like iconic bodily gestures — air quotes, for example — to communicate an emotion or point.

“We’re having this question about how information about emotion through different sensory processes could be combined or cascaded or influenced differently through the process of emotion from the face that has been blocked by a mask,” she says.

Niedenthal’s research shows that over Zoom, people are less expressive and less likely to show facial affect. However, “people are also making more intentional kinds of smiling.” She notes that certain facial affects like crinkling one’s eyes or raising one’s cheeks are becoming more popular as well, particularly with mask-wearing.

Both Niedenthal and Duchaine hope to gain broader, more holistic insights into facial recognition and emotional processing. This includes understanding the different facial expressions that occur naturally in the world or trying to understand how all the different components of facial perception are organized in the brain.

Helms, too, acknowledges the breadth and depth of facial processing work to come. Covering the face, it seems, has only renewed interest in understanding why we hold the face to such social importance. And with much of historical facial research mired in eugenics and physiognomy, she also acknowledges the importance of understanding different cultural norms and phenotypic differences in the face, or how people choose to present their faces.

“If we are more inclusive, because we wear masks, because we cannot see facial differences, maybe we can [practice] that positive acceptance of people who look different from us,” she says. “And even when we take off their masks, we’ll see maybe the smile in their eyes rather than the difference in their face.”

Maggie Chen studies developmental biology and the history of science at Harvard College. She is a freelance science writer with contributions to BioSpace, the New York Times, and Lady Science. As an undergraduate research fellow at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Maggie works on finding ways to mend broken hearts. She can be found on Twitter @chenmaggiesy.

Image: Masking during a pandemic raises interesting questions about facial processing. Credit: Chris Zuniga, Flickr.

March 2, 2022

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