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From Mental Health Update by John Gale

Theory of mind comprises thought processes that enable the behaviour and experiences of others to be recognized, understood, predicted and communicated. People with autism have great problems with theory of mind and can often find it hard to recognise people’s emotions from their faces. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) also find it hard to match facial expressions to emotions. Autism can be accompanied by increased inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity and genetic, neuropsychological and brain-imaging studies suggest links between autism and ADHD. A German study of 99 children between the ages of 6 and 18 found that 52% of the autistic children also met the criteria for a diagnosis of ADHD. The children with ADHD were worse at recognising facial expressions than a healthy control group and both the children with pure ADHD and pure autism were worse than average at recognising emotions.

Sinzig, Judith, Morsch, Dagmar and Lehmkuhl, Gerd – Do hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention have an impact on the ability of facial affect recognition in children with autism and ADHD? European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2008, 17, 63-72.



From the United Press International, April 1, 2008

Australian scientists have discovered crayfish, known in Australia as yabbies, are able to recognize the faces of enemy crayfish.

In the study, after a fight a loser yabby was isolated and given a choice between its opponent and another crayfish not involved in the fight. The loser yabby moved towards the opponent it knew as opposed to the rival it did not, revealing it is capable of visual identity not just an acute sense of smell.

Entire article here.

Cartoon by Eric Shansby 

From the Washington Post, Sunday, March 16, 2008

This is what it is like to be at the movies with me.

Me: Is that the same guy who was in the last scene, with the girl?

Wife: Yes. Shh.

Me: But he had a beard in the last scene.

Wife: No, he didn’t. Shhh.

Me: Are you sure?

Wife: Shhhhh.

Me: (Sulk.)

Wife: Listen, you idiot. It’s Tom Cruise. The same Tom Cruise who was in the previous scene. It’s the same one who will be in the next scene. It’s the same one who had Renee Zellweger at hello in the last movie when you forgot who Tom Cruise was, and, yes, by the way, that was Renee Zellweger, not Kirsten Dunst, who looks nothing like Renee Zellweger and would not be confused for Renee Zellweger by anyone but you, okay?

Stranger in next seat: Shhh.

I have trouble recognizing and remembering faces. It is a mild form of a disorder called prosopagnosia, which in its most extreme form can cause you to look in a mirror and not recognize the person looking back at you.

My face-recognition dysfunction is pretty minor, but it is severely tested when watching a movie, a circumstance where you are suddenly presented with many unfamiliar people interacting in complicated ways, and you must learn to quickly tell them apart. I’m okay if a character has some dramatic distinguishing characteristic, or speaks in a distinctive way — I was just fine with the Wicked Witch of the West — but if the characters seem to be random assemblages of run-of-the-mill noses and eyes, lips and ears, I am in trouble.

Entire article here.

Zoe Hunn (far right), a British fashion model, has trouble recognizing the faces
of even her closest friends. (photo by John Midgley) 

From Wired, Issue 14.11, November 2006 

BILL CHOISSER WAS 48 when he first recognized himself. He was standing in his bathroom, looking in the mirror when it happened. A strand of hair fell down – he had been growing it out for the first time. The strand draped toward a nose. He understood that it was a nose, but then it hit him forcefully that it was his nose. He looked a little higher, stared into his own eyes, and saw…himself.

For most of his childhood, Choisser thought he was normal. He just assumed that nobody saw faces. But slowly, it dawned on him that he was different. Other people recognized their mothers on the street. He did not. During the 1970s, as a small-town lawyer in the Illinois Ozarks, he struggled to convince clients that he was competent even though he couldn’t find them in court. He never greeted the judges when he passed them on the street – everyone looked similarly blank to him – and he developed a reputation for arrogance. His father, also a lawyer, told him to pay more attention. His mother grew distant from him. He felt like he lived in a ghost world. Not being able to see his own face left him feeling hollow.

One day in 1979, he quit, left town, and set out to find a better way of being in the world. At 32, he headed west and landed a job as a number cruncher at a construction firm in San Francisco. The job isolated him – he spent his days staring at formulas – but that was a good thing: He didn’t have to talk to people much. With 1,500 miles between him and southern Illinois, he felt a measure of freedom. He started to wear colorful bandannas, and he let his hair grow. When it got long enough, he found that it helped him see himself. Before that, he’d had to deduce his presence: I’m the only one in the room, so that must be me in the mirror. Now that he had long hair and a wild-looking scarf on his head, he could recognize his image. He felt the beginnings of an identity.

Entire article here.

From the Taranaki Daily News, March 19, 2008

A New Plymouth woman is walking through town when an old friend greets her.

She answers, but keeps walking.

The mate watches her perplexed, hurt growing in her chest.

Up the road, a more persistent person stops the woman in her tracks for a chat.

The conversation is pleasant but not meaningful and the man is affronted the woman doesn’t ask how he fared in a sports event that weekend.

After all, they’d had a major discussion about it just last week, but he’s not the type to brag about success.

He walks on, feeling miffed.

The truth is the woman has no idea who these people are not a clue.

That’s because she suffers from face blindness, a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia.

The woman is embarrassed about her affliction, so prefers not to be named.

To help tell her story, we’ll call her Julie. 

Entire article here.

Here I am sitting at my computer; it’s night, and my reflection is there in the bedroom window. My dark hair disappears into the inky night, leaving behind a face composed of man-in-the-moon highlights and shadows from the desk lamp. The actual face is a slightly blurry composite because the glass needs cleaning.

I have this sinking realization that aside from the familiar shirt, the face could really belong to any number of people. I’d never realized before that I don’t actually recognize my own face – I only recognize that that I’m looking in a mirror at myself, which isn’t really the same thing.

I’m usually squinting at myself nearsightedly in the morning when I comb my hair, so the individual features present the same: a familiar nasal bridge, or an eye with a scar by it. Once in a while I’ll catch sight of a side profile reflection in some random mirror at a store, and be surprised to see someone wearing clothes like mine…it’s downright weird!

Photos of me never look like the individual features I see in the mirror; there’s a whole person there that other people say looks like me. You know, the way that people say your recorded voice sounds like you. I just take their word for it. After all, I remember being in the circumstances from the photo.

Being faceblind is sometimes unsettling.

Entire article here.


From the Telegraph, Updated March 5, 2008 

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but it could now be in the microchip too, after experiments suggest that a computer can use geometry to predict whether or not a face is attractive.

American scientists have programmed a computer to rate attractiveness using factors such as the golden ratio, a proportion that has been used by artists and architects since antiquity because it is aesthetically pleasing.

Females really are the fairer sex – rated more attractive by both men and women – according to the study by the team from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, which has devised an objective way to measure facial attractiveness, which gives reasonable agreement with what people think.

They also found a smaller chin and nose, a larger distance between the eyes and smaller mouth width were deemed desirable traits for females.

For men, the face being divided into equal vertical thirds was attractive, as well as the symmetry of the upper tips of the lips and the nose. Symmetry was also a factor, though not as important as the ratios.

The work confirms the emerging view of scientists that the appreciation of beauty has a deep-seated biological explanation: the face of an intended Valentine or date gives a profound insight into whether our true love will efficiently pass our genes on to future generations.

Entire article here.


From the San Francisco Chronicle, January 24, 2008

The human mind does strange and wondrous things: Its 100 billion nerve cells packed into a single, lumpy gray organ called the brain can think faster than a computer, ponder the mysteries of life with excruciating slowness, control every movement of the body and command it to fight, flee or stand its ground in defiance.

Now, at San Francisco’s Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina, a team of neuroscientists, artists, mechanics and builders has created a varied collection of exhibits – many weird as can be – that allow visitors to watch their own minds at work.

The interactive exhibits will have visitors use their minds for speed-thinking competitions, to catch a liar in a simulated poker game, to conceal their thoughts when they themselves lie, or to react to emotional conflicts: One, for example encourages visitors to drink from a water fountain that’s actually a toilet.

A major feature of the show is the first public showing ever of a black-and-white movie that Paul Ekman, the famed UCSF psychologist, made 40 years ago in New Guinea to prove that Charles Darwin was right and modern anthropologists like famed Margaret Mead were wrong when they argued that facial expressions of human emotions differed among people in different cultures.

Darwin published his seminal book, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” in 1872 and argued that human facial expressions mirrored emotions regardless of the culture in which a person lived. They were part of humanity’s evolutionary endowment, Darwin maintained.

Mead and most modern anthropologists disagreed. Facial smiles and frowns and bared teeth and furrowed brows could all have entirely different meanings in different cultures, they insisted, and were certainly not linked to universal heredity.

But Ekman, now 74, sided with Darwin, and made his movie and photographs in 1967 and 1968 when as a young psychology researcher he journeyed to New Guinea’s highlands to find the Fore tribe of isolated stone-age people who had never seen white folk or known their customs and artifacts.

The Fore had never seen their own faces in a mirror, had never seen photographs or toothbrushes or shoes. But their smiles and frowns were just like Ekman’s.

So he photographed and filmed the village people’s faces when they listened to stories of wild pigs charging, infants dying, intruders marauding, disgusting foods smelling, bad news circulating or happy events occurring, and Ekman found all their facial expressions mirrored the same emotions as everyone else in the world. Those photos are also on view at the Exploratorium.

“The results were extremely strong,” Ekman said. “They were a turning point in my understanding that the expression of our emotions in our faces really had a biological base.”

Ekman’s seminal work has been widely accepted, and after studying the muscles that control his own face in expressing emotions, he created what he calls a “facial action coding system” based on understanding what all those various muscles do.

And it has paid off: He now heads the Paul Ekman Group LLC, a commercial firm that, for a fee, he said, has taught animators at Pixar and Disney to create convincing faces for film characters, and has also trained CIA and the FBI counter-terrorism specialists to recognize the emotions behind involuntary facial expressions.

More recently, he said, his group of “face readers” has trained 1,200 “Behavior Detection Officers” for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration – the folks who watch for suspicious facial expressions of tension, anxiety or possibly “deadly intent” as passengers stand in line to take off their shoes and open their bags for inspection.

This kind of “behavior profiling” can be highly effective in spotting suspicious travelers, Ekman says, but it raises problems, too.

“I’m very concerned about the privacy issues here or the possibility for racial profiling,” Ekman said. “There are real civil liberties problems if a person is pulled out of an airport line and interrogated just on the basis of a suspicious expression that actually meant nothing – a “false positive” in other words.

“I think Congress must assure that all records of those interrogations are destroyed immediately if the presumably suspicious people are cleared.”

Ekman’s New Guinea film will run continuously, and an exhibit of his dramatic close-up photographs of the Fore individuals will be on view in the Mind exhibit at the Exploratorium from Friday through April 20, while the exhibition continues through the year.


From Globe and Mail, January 10, 2008

At first, Kari’s brain surgery seemed like a success. The epileptic seizures that had plagued the 23-year-old New Brunswick native for years were finally gone for good.

But something vital was also missing.

And it wasn’t until Kari returned to university after a summer of recovery, and stranger after stranger approached to inquire about her surgery, that she made a terrifying realization: “I didn’t know my friends.”

Kari, who is now 25 and wanted only her first name published, was later diagnosed with prosopagnosia, a condition often referred to as “face-blindness.”

Although her eyesight is perfectly fine, the surgery had damaged the part of her brain that uses visual cues to recognize faces, including those of her parents, younger brother and closest friends.

“I just see the general shape,” she said, “and I see the hair.”

While it was once believed to be rare, researchers now say about 2 per cent of the population may experience some degree of prosopagnosia. People can be born with the condition or acquire it through trauma or illness.

Inherited face-blindness has been studied for some time, and researchers say that new studies of acquired prosopagnosia may also help illuminate some of the most elusive inner workings of the brain, such as how it uses social cues.

Over the past year, Kari and others with acquired prosopagnosia have been travelling from across North America to Vancouver, where they undergo hours of testing as part of a new collaborative study group involving scientists from Canada and Europe.

Researchers hope the assessments will pinpoint which parts of the brain are involved in processing not only someone’s identity, but also their age, gender, emotions and whether or not they look physically attractive.

“If we can understand this, we can understand a lot about how the brain parcels out information and processes it,” said Jason Barton, a neuro opthamologist at the University of British Columbia who has studied the condition for eight years.

Others say studying the condition may help uncover the biological underpinnings of other cognitive disorders, including autism.

Prosopagnosia was first documented in 1947 by a German doctor who observed that a soldier who had suffered a bullet to the head had lost his ability to recognize people.

Until recently, the condition was believed to be very rare. But in the past couple years major studies have suggested that up to one in 50 people has some degree of face-blindness.

“I think it will become recognized as a real major malady or condition that causes people all kinds of trouble,” said Ken Nakayama, a professor at Harvard University’s psychology department whose research put the figure at around 2 per cent.

Entire article is here.


University of Alberta, Express News, April 19, 2007

Culture is a determining factor when interpreting facial emotions, according to new research.

The University of Alberta study reveals that in cultures where emotional control is the standard, such as Japan, focus is placed on the eyes to interpret emotions. In cultures where emotion is openly expressed, such as the United States, the focus is on the mouth to interpret emotion.

Across two studies, using computerized icons and human images, the researchers compared how people from Japanese and American cultures interpreted images, which conveyed a range of emotions.

“These findings go against the popular theory that the facial expressions of basic emotions can be universally recognized,” said Dr. Takahiko Masuda a U of A professor in the Department of Psychology. “A person’s culture plays a very strong role in determining how they will perceive emotions and needs to be considered when interpreting facial expression”

These cultural differences are even noticeable in computer emoticons, which are used to convey a writer’s emotions over e-mail and text messaging. Consistent with the research findings, the Japanese emoticons for happiness and sadness vary in terms of how the eyes are depicted, while American emoticons vary with the direction of the mouth.

In the United States the emoticons : ) and : – ) denote a happy face, whereas the emoticons 😦 or : – ( denote a sad face. However, Japanese tend to use the symbol (^_^) to indicate a happy face, and (;_;) to indicate a sad face.

When participants were asked to rate the perceived levels of happiness or sadness expressed through the different computer emoticons, the researchers found that the Japanese still looked to the eyes of the emoticons to determine its emotion.

“We think it is quite interesting and appropriate that a culture that tends to masks its emotions, such as Japan, would focus on a person’s eyes when determining emotion, as eyes tend to be quite subtle,” said Masuda. “In the United States, where overt emotion is quite common, it makes sense to focus on the mouth, which is the most expressive feature on a person’s face.”

These findings are published in the current issue of The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and are a result from a collaborative study between Masaki Yuki (Hokkaido University), William Maddux (INSEAD) and Masuda.

The results also suggest the interesting possibility that the Japanese may be better than Americans at detecting ‘false smiles.’ If the position of the eyes is the key to whether someone’s smile is genuine or insincere, Japanese may be particularly good at detecting whether someone is lying or being fake. However, these questions can only be answered with future research.

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