Whether its the look of love, happiness, or the look of fear, humans use facial expressions to communicate important information to one another. But which parts of the brain read these cues, and how do they do it? A paper in this weeks Nature by a group of international scientists, including Professor Philippe Schyns from the University of Glasgow, offers new insights into how we recognize fear in peoples eyes.
The study focuses on a case study of a 38-year-old woman with rare bilateral damage to her amygdala - an almond-shape part of the brain in the temporal lobe. Unusually, she is completely unable to recognize fear from facial expressions - this deficit though can be rescued by instructing her to concentrate her attention on the persons eyes. The researchers found, however, that the woman (named SM in the study) only succeeded in directing her gaze to the eye regions of facial images when given explicit reminders.
SM’s problem is that although she can physically see facial features, she can’t recognise the emotion of fear. SMs impairment stems from an inability to make normal use of information from the eye region within faces when judging emotions, although she can read emotions from the mouth. Her selective impairment in recognizing fear is explained by the fact that that the eyes are the most important feature for identifying fear. However, the subject’s recognition of fearful faces became entirely normal when she was instructed to look at the eyes.
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