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"Reading" Faces

We all read faces — every day. We take it for granted that a person's face reflects feelings and personality. But what happens when that goes wrong?

New research is helping to understand when we're good at reading faces and when we're not. One time when it's difficult is when someone has Parkinson's Disease. WBUR's Health and Science reporter Allan Coukell explains.

JOHN ALGER: Now there, you can see... a little bit in that one quick... did you notice that?

ALLAN COUKELL: His tennis game was the first thing to go. Seven years ago, when John Alger was 58, he developed Parkinson's Disease. Soon after, Alger got married. Watching this wedding video, he noticed his face had started to change.

ALGER: I guess I can see a little bit of it in most of these shots.

COUKELL: One and a half million Americans have Parkinson's. Cells in their brains have stopped producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes it possible to coordinate muscle movement. Patients get tremors, slowness and stiffness. When it affects the muscles of the face, they call it "masking".

Alger, a retired Army colonel in Newton, says he's conscious of it when he meets someone new.

ALGER: What does this person see in me? What I see in myself is a frozen face. Now, I can blink. Not naturally, but I can force myself to blink. Or to squint. Maybe scare up some scarecrows and look a lot more natural.

COUKELL: Listening to Alger, I find it hard to guess his feelings. His deadpan voice is characteristic of Parkinson's disease. Telling me a story, he sometimes laughs, but his eyes remain sad. Sometimes they brim with tears. Is this bittersweet sadness? Is it the disease?

LINDA TICKLE-DEGNAN: It could look like calmness. It could look like hostility. It could like apathy.

COUKELL: Linda Tickle-Degnan, a researcher at Tufts University, studies how people perceive patients with Parkinsonian facial masking.

TICKLE-DEGNAN: There was one woman we interviewed who had to go on trial getting injury reimbursement. And her lawyer kept getting mad at her because she was not expressive. Her voice was a monotone. He said, "you sound like a whiner, you look like a whiner. Can't you look more honest?" And she couldn't.

WOMAN'S VOICE: Let's just go into our facial exercises here. Seated tall...

COUKELL: In a Mass General Hospital conference room, a dozen patients in various stages of Parkinson's Disease do a workout that may help their faces stay limber.

Meanwhile, the Tufts research has found that even healthcare professionals who specialize in Parkinson's disease can't accurately assess the personality of someone with masking. In particular, they consistently misread people who are extroverted and outgoing.

But how good are any of us at reading the faces of the people we meet — regardless whether they have a disease?

NALINI AMBADY: We can make judgments of personality of other people; of sexual orientation; of dominance of faces; we can make judgments of emotions — in as little as 40 milliseconds.

COUKELL: This is Nalini Ambady, a psychologist at Tufts, who studies "thin slicing" — our ability to make fast, almost instantaneous evaluations.

Amady says we tend to be good at recognizing happiness; less good at catching anger or fear. We're best when we know the context (most of us can quickly tell a good teacher from a bad one, for instance). But she warns that culture or even geography can disturb our judgments. Just as we have accents in our speech, she says, we have accents in our faces.

AMBADY: For example, we did a study where we showed people photographs of Japanese or Japanese-Americans. And we found that when we showed them without any emotional expression, people couldn't tell who was Japanese and who was Japanese-American. But when we showed photos with emotional expressions people could distinguish. We did another study with Caucasian Australians and Caucasian US citizens, and again found that when people express emotions, people could tell who was Australian versus American.

COUKELL: Ambady says she's learned to double check her gut reaction if she doesn't know the person she's talking to. John Alger, the retired colonel with Parkinson's Disease, finished his Army career as chief of political-military affairs. When he used to send US observers to the Middle East, he sent them off with these words:

ALGER: I always told them, if they ever got in a tight spot, try to subtly smile. And I think there's enough of an international component to the smile that it can be an effective weapon to take the tension out of a potential confrontation.

COUKELL: Now fighting a different enemy, he tries to keep his own advice in mind. For WBUR, I'm Allan Coukell.

This program aired on June 26, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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