Coaching Empathy: From Imitating to Sharing Emotions
Right from birth, humans and other primates have the innate tendency to imitate the facial expressions of others. Facial mimicry is a mechanism at the basis of our recognition of emotions and emotional contagion, a basic and early developing form of empathy that precedes more complex empathic skills. Facial mimicry is modulated by high-level social factors such as group structure, familiarity, cooperation and competition. Moreover, it is associated with physiological and neural changes produced by the observer’s effective emotional experience and modulated by their empathic characteristics. This response is reduced and/or slowed down in autism and schizophrenia, conditions that are characterized, amongst other elements, by difficulties with empathy and the recognition of emotions in others.
The research group coordinated by Salvatore Maria Aglioti at Sapienza, in collaboration with Fondazione Santa Lucia IRCCS, has tested the possibility of increasing the automatic imitation of facial emotions through enfacement, a simple but effective bodily illusion that is induced through tactile stimulation of a participant’s face while they observe the same stimulation on another person’s face. This procedure reduces the distinction between the self and the other. In fact, several studies have demonstrated that following such a visual-tactile stimulation, participants tend to perceive others as more similar to themselves: from visual identity to social behaviour. In this study, researchers used the enfacement method by simultaneously touching the face of participants and that of an actor, who then exhibited specific emotions, while the facial neuro-physiological responses of participants were recorded. The results, which were published on Cortex, reveal for the first time than the enfacement illusion significantly increases the automatic imitation of other’s emotions.
Many researchers have investigated on the role of self-perception in psychopathology. For example, the study of the prodromes of schizophrenia has recognised self-perception disorders as a fundamental component of the disease. Self-perception disorders are subjective experiential anomalies that precede the full-blown disease and that induce, for example, an inability to clearly differentiate between oneself and others. Self-perception disorders are markedly correlated to the sense of bodily awareness and the construction of a coherent identity in social conditions. Somatosensations are a key element to be able to distinguish between oneself and others and, as confirmed by Aglioti’s research group, this boundary may be altered in contexts of interpersonal visuo-tactile stimulation.
“We have tested the possibility,” concludes Dr. Ilaria Minio-Paluello, main author in the study, “of increasing the automatic imitation of emotive facial expressions through interpersonal visuo-tactile stimulation of the face, as a future and promising process to increasing emotional contagion and improving the comprehension of others’ emotions. We believe that our results may be the basis for developing innovative clinical means to reduce issues related to empathy and the recognition of emotions in certain conditions of neuro-development such as autism and schizophrenia.”
The enfacement illusion boosts facial mimicry – Minio-Paluello, I. Porciello, G. Gandolfo, M. Boukarras, S. Aglioti, S. M. Cortex, (October 1, 2019)
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