Singers trained in the Italian classical vocal technique are drilled to place the voice in the mask, meaning in the resonating chambers of the facial bones. But even for non-singers, the face is the single most important organ of human interaction. And when, for some reason of injury or disability, the face can’t perform its primary functions of transmitting and receiving information critical to navigating the social world, all sorts of things can go wrong.
One young psychology researcher at Tufts University uses first hand experience to study what happens to interpersonal communication when the face is a mask stripped of all expression. Kathleen Rives Bogart has Moebius syndrome, a rare congenital condition named for a 19th-century neurologist, that causes facial paralysis, striking at birth and causing nearly total facial paralysis. She learned early to suffer children's taunts without flinching—because she couldn’t. It was “like having a deformity and not being able to communicate, all in one,” Ms. Bogart told the New York Times' Benedict Carey.
Now Ms. Bogart has teamed with David Matsumoto, a psychologist at San Francisco State University, for a new study which suggests that people with long-term impairment are able to adapt through compensation strategies, “just like for blind people, whose senses of touch, smell, hearing become sharper,” said Dr Matsumoto—strategies which include gestures and tones, as well as other systems in pre-motor areas of the brain.
Research to date has shown that we understand others in large part by small unconscious imitations of others’ facial expressions in our own facial muscles. With this optimistic finding, says Ms Bogart, “the idea is that if we could learn what the best nonverbal communication techniques are, we could teach those to people who are socially awkward for any reason.”
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