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Wearing face masks may hinder our ability to feel emotion and show empathy, Cardiff study shows

05 Nov 2021 2 minute read
Photo by Can Pac Swire is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Face masks could be having a detrimental effect on our ability to socially interact and share other people’s emotions, according to new research.

The study by Cardiff University and Queen’s University Belfast found that people who can’t see or express emotions in their face can struggle to show empathy or detect positive social cues.

The researchers recorded the brain activity of 38 individuals via an electroencephalogram whilst they watched videos of fearful, happy and angry expressions or a collection of inanimate everyday objects as a control.

Study participants were asked to watch the videos whilst holding a pen between their teeth for half the videos and without the pen for the remaining videos.

The results revealed that participants who could freely move their face showed significant neural mirroring (the facial expressions prompted by active observation of other’s actions) when observing the emotional expressions but not the everyday objects.

When the pen was held in their teeth, no neural mirroring was observed when looking at the happy and angry expressions – but it did show neural mirroring when looking at fearful expressions.

“People tend to automatically imitate others’ facial expressions of emotion when looking at them – whether that be a smile, a frown or a smirk,” said lead author Dr Ross Vanderwert, lecturer in psychology at Cardiff University.

“Our study suggests that when the movements of the lower part of the face are disrupted or hidden, this can be problematic, particularly for positive social interactions and the ability to share emotions.”


Dr Magdalena Rychlowska, from the Queen’s University Belfast School of Psychology, said that there was a difference between emotions expressed by the eyes and mouth.

“For emotions that are more heavily expressed by the eyes, for example fear, blocking the information provided by the mouth doesn’t seem to affect our brain’s response to those emotions,” she said.

“But for the expressions that depend on the mouth, like a friendly smile, the blocking had more of an effect.”

The impact could be the same for people with facial paralysis and babies sucking on dummies, they said.

Face masks remain mandatory in some public spaces in Wales, such as on public transport and in shops.

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2 years ago

I support facemasks as a necessity during a global pandemic and will continue to wear one this winter.

But this study is very much in line with my feelings about them too. As someone who’s partially deaf, I also find the inability to lip read difficult.

I, for one, look forward to the day we no longer need to wear them.

2 years ago
Reply to  Jack

Your comment about lip reading struck a note. For years I’ve had difficulty extracting words from background noise, and not being able to watch mouths is a hindrance. I tire of repeatedly asking people to talk louder only to have them talk slower… and quieter.

2 years ago

Masks have actually improved things for me. People seem to be friendlier. I’ve concluded that it’s because most of my smile happens around my eyes and they’re no longer confused by my resting b**ch face.

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