Watch This Face

Courtesy of flickr user South Carolina's Northern Kingdom (creative commons)

From the Consortium for Psychoanalytic Research Annual Conference, Washington, DC:

Picture this audience participation activity: Watch a face projected on a screen. It starts out with a neutral expression, and then subtly shifts to show signs of being happy, angry, disgusted, frightened, surprised, or sad. You choose one. Then the face morphs into a full expression of one of those six emotions, and you choose again. This was how Patrick Luyten, Ph.D., of the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), kicked off a one-day psychoanalytic conference. Each audience member had a sheet of paper, and we were asked to identify which emotion we thought the face was showing at both the subtle and intense emotional levels, and rate how confident we were of our guesses.

We went through this exercise with 18 faces. I felt confident guessing emotions that were expressed intensely, but less so when the changes were more subtle. I had to really focus on the face to try to pick up on whether someone looked frightened vs. angry, for example.

As I understood it, this exercise was developed to evaluate psychiatric patients, but I think that anyone—clinician, researcher, or even a journalist, can learn something from it about the importance of paying attention.

In most of our day-to-day dealings with each other, our faces aren’t scrunched up in anger or open-mouthed in surprise. It takes some attention to see whether your customer is upset, your patient is scared, or your colleague is happy.

It’s easy to have a conversation with someone without really looking at them. Multi-tasking is standard procedure, and it has reached new levels thanks to personal electronic devices. But the next conversation you have, try to pay extra attention to the other person’s expression. The better you can sense how someone is feeling, the better you can empathize and respond accordingly, in both professional life and personal life.

Some people are especially skilled at sensing people’s feelings, Dr. Luyten observed. Let’s hope that enough of them continue to go into psychiatry.

— Heidi Splete (on Twitter @hsplete)

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Filed under IMNG, Neurology and Neurological Surgery, Psychiatry

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