Post No.: 0470
We are so innately primed for social interactions, relationships and working together that we will even perceive animated shapes as having intentions and whether we can trust them or not! Unless we’re relevantly disordered e.g. with Aspergers syndrome, we will perceive even plain or abstract shapes, like triangles, squares or circles on a computer screen, as apparently moving and interacting with other such shapes in social ways – as if they’re repeatedly bumping into, chasing, blocking or abandoning each other with motives, feelings and personalities. That’s how we can create affecting stories with video game characters or physical toys, even with quite blocky/pixelated graphics or objects that barely look like any real-life or natural living creatures e.g. Forky or Mr Hankey.
An individualistic perspective is naïve due to the co-evolution of minds with other people’s minds and the way we live in an ecosystem of minds in a highly social way. Humans, and dogs, evolved to be social, not individualistic – our survival, or at least ability to thrive, depended on and still depends on it. ‘Survival of the fittest’ depends on groups (group selection) as well as on individuals. Cooperation is required to reach our full potential. Woof!
The world around us (where other people are a part of our environment too) is a part of who we are – in a vacuum, we lose our sense of self and identity. We love, hate, trust, distrust, bond, support, feel compassion, judge, converse with, share with, etc. because we evolved to be social. Trying to read each other’s social signals happens innately i.e. we don’t need to consciously train (much) at this skill to do it reasonably well because it has been genetically evolved as an instinct; unlike, say, piloting a helicopter, where one needs to deliberately learn and practise this a lot to be able to do it at all. We read social cues and react, and this is usually an unconscious or subconscious thing that happens so fast and automatically. Each individual brain is embedded within a world of other people’s brains – the neurons of everybody’s brains are firing and interacting with, influencing and are influenced by, the firing of neurons of everybody else’s brains, in highly complex ways. Our brains are not closed but open physical systems to the rest of the outside environment, which includes other people and creatures.
We actually best empathise with or feel other people’s emotions by physically copying or mirroring their facial and bodily expressions – by doing this, we then feel their emotions more strongly for ourselves. We pull a particular face and feel inside what carrying this face feels like. This is how the ‘facial feedback effect’ works e.g. physically turn the corners of your lips up into a smile and slightly squint your eyes and you’ll feel a little bit affectively happier too; not just the other way around.
Botox injections can therefore stop people from being physically able to mirror other people’s expressions well, and thus can reduce people’s ability to identify and empathise with other people’s emotions well. Botox therefore potentially reduces empathy because we empathise partly by literally pulling the faces that others pull. Botox users also of course cannot express their own emotions to others quite as well either, which means that other people might struggle to properly read the emotions of those who use Botox too. Having a frozen face can therefore also affect your happiness – if you cannot physically smile very well, you’ll feel slightly less psychologically happy too.
People who lack the ability to express facial feedback, or for some reason intentionally wish to suppress their own facial expressions, can therefore lack affective empathy and behave coldly. They won’t be as concerned with another person’s pain and also likely won’t find altruism as pleasurable because they won’t anticipate the feeling of joy, or get to feel the joy, from facially mirroring the expressed joy of a recipient of a gift.
Now this doesn’t mean that those who use Botox or otherwise have facial paralysis will be devoid of all emotions, empathy or kindness. Lab experiments have produced inconsistent results regarding the facial feedback effect. This facial feedback effect is moderately influential on our emotions but isn’t the overriding key to how we feel emotions. Those with autism spectrum disorders do not appear to experience this feedback effect either.
Still, physical mirroring can make emotions contagious from one person to the next, and to the next. Whenever we see someone else get hurt, our own pain matrix activates too – to affectively empathise with another person is to literally feel their pain emotionally. We run a compelling simulation of what it might feel like if we were in their situation.
We will even tend to empathise with people whom we know are only acting on screen. That’s what makes watching stories – even purely fictional ones or those involving strangers – so absorbing and popular as a pastime. We can consciously tell ourselves that it’s not real but some neurons cannot tell the difference.
When in a movie theatre and a horror movie is being screened – it might be interesting to turn around and observe the audience’s faces squirm and bodies physically jump (especially women, who are generally more empathic than men)! Most of the audience will be expressing feelings with their faces and bodies that are in line with the characters and story they’re watching at that very moment, even though it’s not for the sake of communicating their feelings to anyone else in the darkness of the theatre. They’re vicariously living in the shoes of the characters in that moment and that’s how they better feel what the characters feel.
We can even unconsciously end up copying another person’s accent in order to better empathise with them and take their perspective, or neurologically ‘walk in their shoes’ as it were. Hence copying (or trying to copy) the accent of someone we’re listening to is not always a sign of mockery – it’s often a sign of deep rapport.
Feedback is generally crucial even for the things we think are easy and we’ve done for years without giving the task much thought e.g. even if you’ve been talking fluently for years, your voice can sound weird or loud if you cannot hear your own voice when trying to talk, hence the shouting if you’re wearing ear defenders or headphones.
Those with the rare condition mirror-touch synaesthesia exhibit higher levels of affective empathy than ‘normal’ people – if you touch, for example, your nose and they observe this then they will somehow feel the same sensation on their own nose too. They somehow literally feel what other people feel when they get touched. This again further adds evidence to the way that, for everyone, if we can feel what others are feeling then we can better empathise with them, and an influential mechanism for this is literally mirroring the facial expressions, body language and vocal tones of another person. (Post No.: 0099 looked at the functions of body language too.) If we have empathy and see another individual get struck in the crotch, we will ourselves physically flinch down below as if we’ve been hit right in the fuzzy gametes!
This mirror-touch synaesthesia condition also shows us that not all abnormalities or disorders are necessarily ‘defects’ – it’s just about being different, and some things are more advantageous in some contexts and more disadvantageous in others. Here, a higher empathy level will mean a higher social understanding with others, but it’s not good to continuously feel the pain or panic of other people when they perhaps need you to stay calm in order to help them during an emergency.
Cognitive empathy (or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, or perspective-taking) is about understanding what someone else is feeling. Affective empathy, meanwhile, is about actively feeling what someone else is feeling, including e.g. feeling stressed ourselves when we detect someone else’s fear or anxiety. Note that cognitive empathy doesn’t always result in affective empathy – in fact, if a narcissist, Machiavellian person, sociopath or sadist practises cognitive empathy and pretends to feel what other people feel, they can manipulate other people or inflict pain on them more effectively, which isn’t nice.
For most of us, empathy is deep in our nature yet refined by nurture. However, empathy can be turned off or diminished when we’re faced with outgroups or anyone we ignore, hate, distrust or ultimately dehumanise because we deem them as potential threats to us, such as confirmed enemies, or even strangers, people who look different to us or people who just look different to what we’re used to seeing. We empathise well with our own ingroup members but this is reduced for ‘outsiders’ – yet all it can require is a moment of commonality, of common humanity, to bind groups together e.g. images of a distressed child affect us all.
Well one lesson from this post to improve empathy is to pay attention to the facial and body language of other people. You can watch films and read or listen to fiction or biographies to get into another character or person’s shoes too. Literally physically mirroring the facial expressions and body language of someone while we’re interacting with them helps us to better get on the same wavelength as them. It’s got to be natural though otherwise it’ll look like you’re trying to ridicule them, but for most of us this usually happens subconsciously anyway and is thus natural. Most facial expressions are universal across cultures. Rapport and mirroring behaviours are greatest with those we like and happens the least with those we dislike (or those we’ve negatively prejudged whether on reasonable grounds or not; for which on racist ‘outsider’ grounds is not reasonable, for instance).
But we do have to be adaptable because in some situations we don’t want to be constantly overwhelmed with the contagious strong emotions of others. Botox has even been suggested as a treatment for depression because – although it will reduce any furry facial expressions of joy – it’ll also reduce any facial expressions, and in turn feelings, of sorrow too.
We can still feel emotions even if we don’t move our faces or bodies but doing so certainly amplifies them, even if by just a tad. We use our faces to communicate with others anyway and if we don’t, say, express happiness or sadness when someone else is, they’ll naturally think we don’t get them and aren’t on the same wavelength.
If you want to feel a certain way then try physically acting it. Slow down and you’ll relax, smile and feel happier, or clench your fist and you’ll feel more powerful but tense. Even the smallest of actions can affect the mind. So to help change how you think, change the way you move, act and behave (modelling or ‘fake it until you make it’, which shouldn’t be taken out of context here to mean faking in other ways or for other purposes). It won’t guarantee anything but it’s worth a shot.
Healthy and hygienic teeth are always important in terms of avoiding or taking care of cavities or receding gums, for instance, but if you’re unhappy with or insecure about showing your teeth because you think they otherwise look unsightly then this will affect your psychology because you’ll not want to smile fully and naturally. If this is the case then seeing a dentist to get your teeth sorted out could be the answer to seeing you smile more and therefore fully embracing the expression and emotion of happiness, as well as the feeling of confidence because if you physically smile more, you’ll mentally feel happier and more confident due to the feedback effect. Therefore – although some people with less-than-perfect-looking teeth can still have the confidence to smile with a broad smile (and this is good on them!) – good-looking fangs can improve a person’s confidence too.