Emotional facial expressions are not universally produced and understood

Language and culture may influence how our brain processes emotional faces.

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Many believe recognizing others’ emotions is automatic and solely based on facial expressions. However, studies indicate that our knowledge of emotions influences our understanding of emotions over time.

A recent study explored how cultural background and access to emotion-related words affect how people interpret facial expressions of emotions. It discovered that in some cultures, specific terms can change how different parts of the brain communicate when processing others’ facial expressions, suggesting that feelings aren’t universally perceived in the same way.

Dr Joseph Leshin, a researcher at Northeastern University and the study’s first author, said, “Here we show that access to emotion category words like ‘disgust’ differentially alters how brain regions interact when people perceive emotions on others’ faces. Importantly, this effect depends on one’s cultural upbringing.”

Senior author Dr Kristen Lindquist, a neuroscientist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said, “Our findings contribute to growing evidence that emotional facial expressions are not universally produced and understood.”

Two participant groups- Chinese and White Americans- were recruited for the study. They underwent fMRI to assess functional connectivity between brain regions during emotion perception.

To examine this, participants were presented with images of actors displaying expressions of “disgust” and “anger,” as commonly seen in White North Americans. Across four sessions, these expressions were shown either after seeing the corresponding emotion category word or a non-word control text.

When Chinese participants were primed with the word “disgust” before viewing disgusted facial expressions, there was a notable decrease in functional connectivity between a brain region linked to recalling meanings (the inferior frontal gyrus) and regions tied to understanding implications, visual processing, and social understanding. However, priming with the word “anger” didn’t affect connectivity for Chinese participants compared to the control text. Interestingly, neither “disgust” nor “anger” priming affected connectivity for White American participants.

Scientists noted“These findings suggest that seeing an English emotion category word before seeing the corresponding facial expression may help Chinese participants to understand the meaning behind the culturally-relative expression better. This also seems to apply even when the emotion is not central to a culture, as is the case with the notion of ‘disgust’ in Chinese culture.”

It’s important to note some limitations in their study, like the small number of participants and the fact that the groups and emotion words don’t cover all cultural and emotional diversity.

Future research could explore if similar differences exist between cultures that are more alike than China and the US. Even slight cultural variations might affect how emotions are processed in the brain, according to the researchers. Currently, there’s limited research on subcultures within the same country, like different groups within the US or China.

This study could even have applications in AI. It can be used to design AI tools to read emotions from faces, must account for cultural variation to avoid misinterpretation of people’s expressions, and highlight the need for culturally informed AI.

Journal Reference:

  1. Joseph Leshin, Maleah J. Carter et al. Language access differentially alters functional connectivity during emotion perception across cultures. Front. Psychol. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1084059
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