Lincoln study reveals children can be trained to better recognise emotions

Neuroscientists at the University of Lincoln have released a study that could lead to real differences for those suffering from autism and other cognitive development conditions which prohibit understanding of other people’s emotions.

Published in the PLoS One journal, the study shows that simple training programmes and games focusing on the movement of the eyes and mouth can emphasise a connection between expressions and emotions.

The research could be an important breakthrough in the battle to combat autism and other disorders which can prevent emotional understanding (Photo: hepingting via Flickr)

The research could be an important breakthrough in the battle to combat autism and other disorders which can prevent emotional understanding (Photo: hepingting via Flickr)

“How we recognise and process facial expressions plays a big part in our social interaction skills,” said Dr Petra Pollux, the lead researcher from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology. “We’ve all experienced walking into a room, looking around, and immediately understanding that something has happened, because we’re reading the expressions on people’s faces.

“This ability to understand and read facial expressions is a crucial skill in development and begins at quite an early age.

“We wanted to investigate if there was a correlation between which parts of the face the children looked at and their ability to correctly pick up on the emotional state of the person in the image.”

This was done by showing a group of nine-year-old children a variety of digitally manipulated faces of differing emotional expressions, including happy, fearful, and sad. The children then had to identify the correct emotion, while an incorrect guess was alerted by a tone.

The children began by focusing more often and for longer on the mouth, although they began to focus more on the eyes, leading to more correct answers, over the four sessions they spent with researchers.

Different faces were used in different sessions, in order to certify that the emotional awareness could be carried over to other people.

Dr Pollux hoped that her team’s research would not only combat cognitive development problems, but inspire people to find more fun ways of doing so.

“It’s really useful to know that the way a child scans a face plays an important role in recognising emotions,” she added. “This research could be used to develop mobile phone apps which turn this kind of training into a game.”

You can read the full study for free by clicking here.

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