Ability To Imitate Facial Features Depends On Visual Feedback
December 27, 2012

Our Ability To Imitate Facial Expressions Depends On Learning Through Visual Feedback

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

New studies by British researchers have provided hard evidence of what most of us know intuitively — that the ability to imitate the expressions and gestures of others can ease conversations and lubricate social situations. Using cutting edge computer software, the team of scientists has demonstrated that our ability to mimic facial expressions depends largely on the ability to learn through visual feedback.

The so-called ℠chameleon effect´ refers to a behavioral phenomenon where people subconsciously copy the mannerisms, facial expressions and postures of the person or people with whom they are talking. In this manner, they unintentionally change their behavior so that it matches that of the people in their immediate social environment.

While this type of behavior has long been observed by researchers in a number of fields, scientists have never understood the mechanism behind how we learn to copy the facial expressions and gestures of others with such accuracy when we can´t even see our own faces.

Richard Cook of City University London, Alan Johnston of University College London, and Cecilia Heyes of the University of Oxford set out to look for the possible mechanisms behind our ability to imitate our peers. Their results have been published in two studies in the journal Psychological Science, part of the Association for Psychological Science.

In the first part of their investigation, the researchers used video to record participants as they first told a joke. They were then asked to imitate four randomly selected facial expressions taken from their own videos. Once the participants believed that they were correctly mimicking the expression, they captured a picture of the expression by clicking a mouse.

The scientists then used a high-tech computer program to gauge the accuracy of each participant´s attempts to mimic the target facial expressions. The program was able to do this by creating a digital map of the original expressions and then using it as a basis of comparison for their subsequent attempts to copy the expressions. This computerized method of analysis allowed for a higher level of accuracy and objectivity than previous studies that relied on the subjective analysis of the expressions by researchers.

In one portion of the experiment, the team found that participants who were allowed to watch their imitation attempts via video feedback were able to improve the accuracy of their facial expressions after several attempts. However, participants who were not allowed to view their own expressions and relied only on their own sense of their facial features tended to actually get worse with each successive attempt.

The researchers pointed out that the results of their experiment are consistent with the so-called ℠associative sequence-learning model´, which states that our ability to accurately imitate expressions and gestures is dependent on our ability to make associations between what we feel and the what see in our own expressions (as in the mirror) and the expressions of others.

The team also noted that this kind of contingent visual feedback could prove to be a valuable tool for rehabilitation and skill-training programs that are designed to improve the ability to imitate facial gestures in individuals with brain defects.