[Science Solitaire] Do masks hide what we feel?

If you can’t see someone’s whole face, would you care less about that person? 

There is always so much to take in when you encounter another person, regardless of whether they are familiar or a stranger to you. Save from some cultures who wear head to toe-coverings or when in situations that require protective gear, face-to-face interactions had always implied uncovered faces. Then this pandemic happened, and a sea of masked faces all around the world have become the iconic image of this time. What does this mean in terms of our ability to read each other’s thoughts and feelings? (READ: Masks are everywhere in Asia, but have they helped?)

Science has one test for that and it is called the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test developed by British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen from the University of Cambridge. You can take one yourself and experience what it is. The test gives you a view of pairs of eyes showing different emotions and you will be asked to identify what you think they are thinking/feeling. The expressions do vary according to cultures and in the language used to do the test so it is important to know that when you take the test and especially when you see your results. Facial expressions are not universal so cultural context should always be considered.

But the important thing to know is that reading someone is not necessarily compromised because the mouth is covered. This is because one, there is a lot more going on around the facial muscles, especially around the eyes and your eyes themselves that signal the emotion that is received by the one you are facing. 

This is what was fascinating about this interview in the Scientific American with Professor Ursula Hess of the Humboldt University who, with her colleagues have done many studies on facial expressions and the way they convey thoughts and emotions. 

She said that in a study that they did which will be published very soon, they found that even if people wore masks, they were still able to convey emotions to another. She said that while we largely associate a smile with the way we curve our mouths, a smile registers more in the facial muscles, including the ones around and in the sides of our eyes. That is why you can see someone smile even when his/her mouth is covered. Those muscles around the eyes are what form a “Duchenne smile” – a genuine smile. If you force yourself to smile without really smiling within you, those muscles will not move. This is also why good actors know how to smile because they know that they have to be in a smiling mood to give a genuine smile on camera.

Professor Hess also said you can read a person’s mood even if you cannot see their whole face by the way they speak because we also take in how we see another’s body move – with gestures accompanying the situations we are in. The voice will also tell you something about their mood. Try it – talk about something joyful in a sad voice and you would be hard pressed to do it. Or do the reverse- talk about a tragic event in a happy voice and you will feel the inner struggle to synch them. 

One of the most interesting things she said was that it also depends on what you think “masks” stand for. In parts of the world, especially in the US, masks have become symbols of other than what they are supposed to be for – to prevent droplets from your mouth/nose to reach someone else. Those who choose not to wear masks think it is because it is curtailing their freedoms. But when you think of it as the way we can take care of each other, strangers, families, and friends, then you just see the others who are wearing masks as part of the collective effort to make things better or at least, keep things from getting worse. Then you see the person and not the mask. (READ: WHO encourages masks where virus widespread, distancing tough)

 A few days ago, I needed medical attention and had to go the hospital for a few hours. Naturally, everyone was wearing masks. In the time I was there, with everyone who approached me, from the guards to the nurses and doctors, I never felt I was being shortchanged in terms of the human connection just because we were all wearing masks. Even the masked one who was computing my bill was really friendly and told stories. 

Most of all, I did not feel less empathetic to the other patients who were also wearing masks. The bed beside mine in the emergency area had a young woman who seemed very weak from a lingering disease. She seemed to be in pain as well. But in intervals, when we would look at each other, I could see her smile. When I left, she was looking at me so I clasped my hands and bowed to her and wished her well. I saw the sweetest Duchenne smile even as she wrinkled her forehead in pain.

Masks do not cover all of what you are thinking or feeling. Consider them part of the puzzle you have to make sense of as you behold another person. Each person is a world unto herself. A mask is just a patch of cloud over that big, deep world. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.