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How New Visual Feedback Technology Enhances the Human Ability to Mimic Facial Expressions

facial expressionSome people may not want to equate themselves with a monkey, but just as these animals are able to copy many actions they witness, so new research reveals that visual feedback is what enables us to imitate facial expressions.

While the technology in the study might be new, the relationship between visual stimulation and facial expression imitation is something that has long been recognized. This knowledge has served as a secret weapon for many tricksters, sales people and others, who use the chameleon effect to get what they want from others. The fact is that the ability to mimic other’s expressions is an important part of social growth.

The real question is about what happens when humans are not given any visual feedback. How can they learn to imitate others accurately?

To find the answer to this question, Richard Cook of City University London, Cecilia Heyes of the University of Oxford and Alan Johnson of University College London performed research into the cause. Their approach was an attempt to seek out the mechanisms that might be underlying human imitation abilities. There were two studies that guided their research which can be found in Psychological Science, one of the journals for the Association for Psychological Science.

For the first experiment, a special computer program was used that could evaluate the accuracy of facial expression imitations. Videos were made of participants wherein they were told to imitate four facial expressions that had been chosen at random. In the videos, the participants recited jokes as they imitated the expressions. Practicing making the faces until they felt that they were accurate representations of the expressions they had been told to imitate, the participants recorded their attempts with a simple mouse click.

The new technology of the computer program used in the study allowed for greater measurement of accuracy as opposed to older studies where the assessments could only be made subjectively. It was even shown in one study that participants were able to improve their imitations thanks to visual feedback they received from the computer. However, participants that did not have access to this feedback, but could only sense the position of their facial features relative to the images did not improve their imitations but continued to get worse.

The findings of these studies further confirms the associative sequence-learning model. This model states that the human capacity to accurately imitate relies heavily on the relationships learned between what they see, the visual input, and what they feel. It has therefore been concluded by the researchers that the effectiveness of rehabilitation and skill-training programs which focus on improving facial imitation ability, can be greatly enhanced through the addition of visual feedback.

The conclusion is that humans can improve their ability to imitate the facial expressions of others when they have visual feedback. Without this, they can have a hard time imitating with any degree of accuracy and may even worsen in their ability over time. Programs such as the one used in this study can improve the accuracy of facial expression imitation.