“Facial paralysis makes me a really good judge of character”

Grad student Kathleen Bogart has Moebius syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes facial paralysis: no smiling, no blinking, no lateral eye movement.  A New York Times article, Seeking Emotional Clues Without Facial Cues, looked at her experience and that of others with Moebius.

When she tried working with refugees from Hurricane Katrina, Bogart often couldn’t connect with them.  They didn’t see sympathy or understanding in her face–because she can’t express those things facially.  People in conversations mirror and react to one another, and we’re usually very skilled at detecting and interpreting very small physical signals: a forced smile, a distracted glance.

This is a complicated area.  It’s not necessarily the case that people with similar paralysis can’t recognize emotion, but the inability to mimic is a barrier.  Some people cope through other channels: eye contact, for example, or voice.  The challenge has turned into a research field for Bogart.

I had no special interest in studying facial paralysis, even though I had it; there were many other things I could have done. But in college I looked to see what psychologists had to say about it, and there was nothing. Very, very little on facial paralysis at all. And I was just — well, I was angry.  Angry.  I thought, I might as well do it because certainly no one else is.

One result was a study of how people with Moebius recognize facial expressions (link is a PDF) of her study, demonstrating that the ability to mimic the expressions of others is not essential to recognizing their emotional state.  As the Times article suggests, if the strategies that people with Moebius use to understand emotion are “teachable,…they could help others with social awkwardness, whether because of anxiety, developmental problems like autism, or common causes of partial paralysis, like Bell’s palsy.”

The Times website has aslide show in which Bogart talks about having a face that can’t express emotion.



2 thoughts on ““Facial paralysis makes me a really good judge of character”

  1. Fascinating, Dave. I’d be interested in hearing how Bogart would compare her experience working face-to-face with Katrina victims to efforts offering support only through text and/or voice –say, via a discussion board or telephone.

  2. Jane, I had a similar thought when reading this. You can imagine how disconcerting it could be at first to deal face-to-face with someone like Bogart. You’d have to recognize and adjust your interpretation of cues (or the lack of them).

    I know you’ve had extensive experience with “virtual presence.” One small example from my own background: I helped conduct a series of training sessions via phone teleconference (in the days before things like WebEx). As part of setting expectations, I’d tell participants, “If you have a question or a comment you want to make, go right ahead. Just start by saying, ‘This is Connie in Denver.’ That way I’ll know who’s speaking, and when you get to your question or comment you’ll have my full attention.”

    Not foolproof, of course, but a way of compensating for the last of visual cues.

    I think anyone who’s had to deal with the online-chat version of support can generally recognize when the other person is using a script, typing in a non-native language, or both.

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