“The baby, assailed by eyes, ears, nose, skin, and entrails at once, feels it all as one great blooming buzzing confusion”- William James
Have you ever wondered why you are so good at picking up on how your friends are feeling? Is this ability to catch emotion from others, known as affective empathy, instinctive from birth, or do we learn how to share emotions with other people?
As adults, when we look at people’s faces, we rapidly and unconsciously move the muscles in our face to mirror the expression of the person we are looking at. So if we look at a happy person, the muscles in our cheeks that would normally be activated when we are smiling contract a tiny bit. This movement is so small that it is invisible to the naked eye and you don’t even know you are doing it. Luckily, thanks to some amazing technology, we can now measure these minuscule movements. Scientists believe that this automatic mirroring of the movements involved in expressing emotion is what helps us to be able to tell how others are feeling so rapidly. By mimicking others emotion, we can quickly come to understand respond to their emotions in an appropriate way, avoiding any awkward situations. This poses an interesting question to developmental psychologists: when does this rapid facial responding start happening?
At the Early Learning Project we want to find out if this mimicry response is something that we are born with, or if babies have to learn to share emotion with other people. Our PhD student, Amy Datyner, recorded the muscle movement of 7-month-old infants using electromyography, or EMG. Babies wore tiny sensors placed on their cheek and brow while we showed them pictures of lots of happy and angry faces.
Our research found that babies do activate the smiling muscles when they look at happy faces, but they do not activate frowning muscles when they see angry faces. This finding suggest that rapid facial mimicry is not necessarily present at birth and does not necessarily occur in response to all kinds of emotion expression early in life.
Why do infants mimic happy but not angry face? It is possible that we can explain this result by thinking about how much infants are exposed to different emotions. Afterall, how often do people get angry at little babies? And who can resist smiling at them?
This is the first time that this muscle movements have been used to record mimicry in infants and our study has provided exciting new evidence about how babies learn to share emotional reactions with other people. . Our research shows that babies share positive emotional reactions with people early on, so next time you’re playing with your baby, don’t forget they know how you’re feeling- and might even be mimicking you without even realising it.
Amy’s manuscript is under revision at Developmental Psychobiology and we are planning a followup study to look at whether infants are more likely to mimic emotional expressions shared by a caregiver relative to a stranger, so if you are interested in getting involved or know someone who might be, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website www.earlylearningsydney.com
I am the Director of the Early Learning Project at UNSW. My research interests focus on learning, memory and emotion understanding development in infancy and early childhood
I am currently studying for my undergraduate Psychology degree at Cardiff University in the UK. I am working as a Research Assistant in the Early Learning Project as part of our placement program this year.
I have just finished my thesis for my honuors degree. My research focused on future thinking ability in preschoolers.