What You Can Tell About a Face in 0.1 Seconds

A team of Spanish and Brazilian researchers has looked at how well—and how quickly—we can recognize the facial expressions of others. Correctly recognizing the emotions behind these expressions is important because they act as signals, and we make judgments and deductions about other people based on what we see. “These inferences can strongly influence election results or the sentences given in trials, and have been studied before in fields such as criminology and the pseudoscience of physiognomy, ” explains University of Barcelona psychologist Jose Antonio Aznar Casanova, who worked on the study.
When the researchers gave a group of psychology students 0.1 seconds to look at a face, they found that they could detect happiness better and faster than sadness. “Positive expressions, or expressions of approach, are perceived more quickly and more precisely than negative, or withdrawal, ones,” Aznar Casanova says. “So happiness and surprise are processed faster than sadness and fear.”

We See More When We’re in a Good Mood

Our mood really changes the way we see the world, according to a new study from a team at the University of Toronto. “Good and bad moods literally change the way our visual cortex operates,” explains Adam Anderson, a psychologist who worked on the research. When we’re in a good mood, “our visual cortex takes in more information,” he says, “while negative moods result in tunnel vision.”
The researchers showed volunteers a composite image (pictured here) that had a face in the center and a house in the background, and they focused the volunteers’ attention on the face by asking them to identify the gender. Participants who were primed to be in a bad mood did fine on that task, but didn’t process the surrounding image of the house. Those who were in a good mood took in more information and processed more of the picture—both the face and the background.
As Taylor Schmitz, a U of T graduate students and the study’s lead author, notes:

Good moods enhance the literal size of the window through which we see the world. The upside of this is that we can see things from a more global, or integrative perspective. The downside is that this can lead to distraction on critical tasks that require narrow focus, such as operating dangerous machinery or airport screening of passenger baggage. Bad moods, on the other hand, may keep us more narrowly focused, preventing us from integrating information outside of our direct attentional focus.

The study appears in The Journal of Neuroscience. —Heather Wax

Outgoing Men Have Different Brains

Are you sociable and affectionate? Are you always trying to please people? It might be because you have more brain tissue in certain parts of your brain, according to a team of researchers from Cambridge University and the University of Oulu in Finland.
The scientists studied the link between brain structure and personality in a group of males by scanning their brains and having them answer questions that rated their “social reward dependence,” a measure of their emotional warmth and sociability. Turns out, the more gray matter a man has in the orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum regions of his brain, the higher his social reward dependence tends to be. And here’s what’s neat: Those same brain regions have previously been linked to the processing of simple rewards.
“It’s interesting that the degree to which we find social interaction rewarding relates to the structure of our brains in regions that are important for very simple biological drives such as food, sweet liquids, and sex. Perhaps this gives us a clue to how complex features like sentimentality and affection evolved from structures that in lower animals originally were only important for basic biological survival processes,” says Dr. Graham Murray, a psychiatrist who worked on the study.
But keep in mind, he says, that trying to understand why some people are warmer or more social than others is complex, and this study is only correlational—meaning that we know brain structure and personality are related, but “it cannot prove that brain structure determines personality. It could even be that your personality, through experience, helps in part to determine your brain structure.”
The research appears in the European Journal of Neuroscience. —Heather Wax

Seeing in Your Brain the Emotions You Hear

Scientists can use brain scans to tell whether you’ve just heard words spoken in anger, joy, relief, or sadness, according to a new study led by Thomas Ethofer at the University of Geneva. The researchers discovered that different emotions in speech lead to distinct patterns of activity in a listener’s auditory cortex, the area of the brain that processes sound and human voices. By looking at the overall pattern of activity in this brain region, they could identify which emotion had just been heard.
“Comprehension of emotional prosody is crucial for social functioning and compromised in various psychiatric disorders, including deficits for anger and sadness in schizophrenia, fear and surprise in bipolar affective disorder, and surprise in depression,” the researchers write in the journal Current Biology. “Future research might apply a similar approach as ours to clarify whether these deficits are paralleled by activity changes blurring emotions at the level of auditory cortex, or are due to disrupted patterns within frontal regions reflecting biased interpretation of emotional signals.”

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