Grasping masked emotions

A tiny coronavirus rapidly spread around the world causing havoc to the health of many infected people. The virus-pandemic quickly put societies and world economy on their knees. Unprepared, humans faced the challenge of getting a grip on the coronavirus crisis. We witness endless debates on what to do to win the fight against the virus lurking among us. We live in an info jungle where different medias fiercely compete for our attention. Exposure to a constant – one could claim – overwhelming flood of corona-related info can cause mental dizziness. It places a toll on humans’ cognitive abilities to handle the, often contradictory, information. Thinking together brings clarity of mind and reduces stress. Unfortunately, natural human communication is currently in many ways hampered.

The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford has a collection of hand sculptures by the French artist Auguste Rodin (picture on the right).

I had decided not to put my verbal spoon into this boiling coronavirus soup of facts, fiction, opinions, argumentation. I rethought my blogging activity and decided to pitch in and write about neurobiological facts deeply rooted into human brains and minds and affecting our behaviour in many ways. I will tap into cognitive neuroscience research and present some important things for us all to be aware of behind our protective face masks.

Without an effective vaccine against the virus, different types of safety measures had to be activated to try and get an upper hand over the pandemic. Face masks, distancing ourselves from other people, washing hands, no hand shaking, no touching, stay at home, border control, virus testing and infection chain hunting effect our ways of living. Effects on human cognition and communication skills have, however, been in the sidelines of daily media coverage of health, societal and economic issues of covid-19.

Human interaction – the many roles of the face, mouth and hand

In Finland there is an ongoing face mask debate. Arguments on their usefulness in preventing the spread of viruses are endless. Should people be forced to use them? Do we need a penalty threat? Is a strong recommendation enough? What type of mask, how to use it, where to use it, who should use it? Should it be a use-and-discard one or washable? Should it be a surgical one, some other type of special “anti-viral” material, or will any textile do?

In the midst of the debate, we are daily repeatedly reminded about the use of face masks and also instructed “don’t touch, keep your hands to yourself”. However, the human face, mouth and hand do not just spread viruses and other infective agents. They are also key players in human behavior. We should be aware of this also. This important fact has mostly so far been forgotten.

Recently my eyes were drawn to a picture of a young child with a wide smiling mouth and cute white milk teeth. “Take a moment to look at this smile”, said the ad. “Did you smile back? We hope you did because a smile brings happiness to the one smiling and those around the smiler”. So true. Even two strangers sharing a smile can have a connection moment. Well, now smiles are often hidden behind masks.

Homunculus (left). On the right Sensory and Motor Homunculus sculptures at the Museum of Natural History, London, based on the cortical homunculi mapped by Dr. Wilder Penfield. Wilder Penfield who, while developing epilepsy neurosurgery, systematically stimulated with mild electrical current different areas of the brain’s parietal-lobes in an awake patient. The patient then described the body area in which a certain stimulus initiated a sensation or motor activity. Penfield published this groundbreaking research in 1937 together with Edwin Boldrey. Since then, with the many advances in functional imaging techniques, e.g. the brain representation areas of the human hand and fingers have been identified in much more detail (brain cartography).

Non-verbal communication is an important part of human interaction. By looking at a person’s facial expressions (for example mouth and cheek movements) it is possible to figure out if the person is happy, joking, irritated, angry, frustrated or sad. So, when the face is from the nose downwards hidden behind a facial mask, a significant part of nonverbal information is lost. Spoken words do not tell the whole truth. Eyes do not express all emotions.

Masked nuances of voice

In addition to facial expressions, the tone of voice contains a lot of information on e.g. the emotional state of the speaker. The face mask literally masks nuances and intonation of voice and speech starts to sound more mechanic and robot-like. In addition, the actual words are often muffled, making it much more difficult to hear correctly. When spoken information is missed, the human mind has the tendency to fill the info gaps with assumptions (not always correct) of what was probably said. This often leads to misinterpretation. Face masks make lipreading nearly impossible. Not only deaf people read lips. Aging-related hearing decline is a common problem and lip reading is (often even unconsciously) used to compensate impaired hearing. Even with good hearing, we are brain-wired (programmed) to look at a talking person’s mouth.

Imagine people sitting in a business meeting with face masks and negotiating a big business deal. A lot is at stake on all sides. Normally people follow attendees’ facial expressions in addition to body language and the use of hands when talking or listening to others. A person can talk in one way but think in another. So, we follow the face to figure out if a person is earnest and really means the words said. We humans are quite good at detecting mismatches in what is communicated verbally and non-verbally. A video-call also filters out important nonverbal information that in many cases can be captured in real-life meetings – without face masks.

Facial expressions are an important part of human interaction. Reading facial ques helps to fine-tune our spoken words. Emotional states vary between individuals and within an individual (you’re having a good or bad day). At work, in a project meeting, when all team buddies are using a mask it is not an easy task to figure out who is excited, who worried, who bored about the group effort at hand. Hiding students behind masks is also problematic: how to identify a troubled one? Getting a feel of what’s going on is not any easier via video, hiding behind a screen is very easy. In everyday life we normally interact with each other by constantly making use of non-verbal information faces and gestures provide.

Grasping things and meanings

The human hand is a versatile and fantastic tool we always have with us. The hand grasps stuff. When it is difficult to put something into words, many people take a pen and draw a picture or use gestures to help explain thoughts. Hands are used for creating things and ideas and testing do they work. The multifunctional hand has inspired both scientific research and artistic studies. The picture in this blog shows several hand sculptures made by Auguste Rodin.

At the moment co-creation and getting a hang of things is difficult for many people as hands are banned from many group activities. Hands take part in the thinking process. Questions like can you handle this, do you catch/grasp my meaning prove my point. Hand gestures contain a rich variety of non-verbal information.

In all stores and malls there are disinfection bottles scattered around the premises with signs reminding us to disinfect our hands repeatedly. I was standing at a rack of men’s shirts. A please, refrain from touching the items -sign was placed at my eye level. Well, I am the master-ironer in my family. I know from years of experience that some shirts are made of fabric that is an ironer’s nightmare while other fabrics allow the iron to slide smoothly along the shirt. In order to know which shirt is the dream fabric from the ironer’s point of view, I have to touch the shirt and handle the material. There was no disinfection bottle nearby. Luckily, I had my own bottle with me.

Does the fabric crinkle easily? Is the object light or heavy, soft or hard, slippery or crude? Is the design of an object pleasing to the touch? How about usability? Being able to touch and handle things with one’s hand provides the answer to these and many other questions not answerable by just looking at them.

A handshake is much more than hands meeting in greeting in cultures were this habit is common. Nonverbal signals are present and interpreted. Is the hand grip strong or limp? Are you given the whole hand to touch or just the fingertips? Do you sense an extra squeeze? It might be a silent message between friends/colleagues: “We will get through this together”. A tap on a fellow man’s shoulder can be a nonverbal sign of encouragement. A punch can be playful or aggressive. Not long ago, group hugs were a way to show team spirit in times of success and failure. I remember attending work wellness days in which I was personally a bit uneasy with all the group hugging. Now that it’s banned, I realise I miss the possibility to choose when to give a hug or get one as a show of support and caring.

Gloves and see-through masks

Nearly daily we see news flashes of politicians standing in a ring, at least an arm-length distance from a fellow meeting attendee. All are wearing masks. “I can’t really say anything about the current spirit in the meeting as all EU leaders have face masks”, summed an EU correspondent. Daily I witness people greeting each other by clicking elbows. I’m not a friend of the high five either, but this elbow clicking is really a stupid alternative to a handshake.

We now know that a covid-19 virus infection can cause serious health problems, even death in some individuals. While waiting for an effective vaccine it is prudent to activate a wider palette of safety measures. But the current virus-pandemic is not the last. So, let’s prepare for the next one, still to come, in advance and devise ways of interacting that don’t leave out a major part of nonverbal communication between humans.

I strongly recommend mass production of see-through masks that don’t get misted from breathing. Handshakes with gloved hands are better than elbow clicking. Most importantly, let’s be aware of the fact that the face, mouth and hand are not just transferring bugs. They play an elemental role in human interaction.

In the midst of the corona-data tsunami one’s thoughts can get quite tangled. Thought sharing brings clarity. Let’s not put up unnecessary boundaries but think of ways to improve opportunities for human contact. Further development of video aided remote communication is not enough. Let’s not be blinded by the hype around the digital giant leap forward in society gaining momentum from the coronavirus crisis. Human interaction can only partly be replaced by screen time.

This entry was posted in brain, cognition, communication, covid-19, emotion, English, face, future, grasp, hand, human, mask, mouth, society, technology, virus-pandemic and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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