Imagine being surrounded by people speaking a language you have never heard before. Now take it one step further and picture this happening in the dark, on a roller coaster. This might offer a little insight as to what it could be like to lack the ability to pick up on emotional cues through facial patterns.
My eldest daughter is severely autistic so I am extremely familiar with the inability to read faces. For people on the autism spectrum or those with schizophrenia, this ability that many of us take for granted is a large piece of their day to day challenge.
For years people have been judged by their cognitive ability or IQ but in recent years science is catching up to what moms like me have known all along, having a low IQ and a low EQ or emotional intelligence don’t always go hand in hand.
Emotional intelligence is defined as one’s ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. This includes emotional awareness as well as emotional regulation. (Goleman)
People who suffer from a lack of emotional intelligence can be perceived as cold or distant. This can lead to loneliness or depression as an added challenge. To learn how strong your ability to recognize emotions is, check out this online emotional intelligence test.
There is a difference between recognizing emotion and having an empathetic reaction to emotion. Empathy is the ability to sense other people’s emotions and it is coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. (Davis)
Personally, I’ve had to work hard to discern differences in facial expressions- this leads me to believe that further research on the connection between genetics and autism is probably going to show distinct differences in the way parents of the emotionally blind process faces visually. I’m very aware that my own facial recognition skills are poor so although I feel very skilled in cognitive empathy I do note that the affective recognition that is required in emotional recognition is a key to empathy. The Greater Good Science Center has a test for empathy too.
Emotional response seems a combination of learned and innate. In Malcolm Gladwell’s essay The Naked Face he explores whether extreme ability to read faces can be learned or is a gift. I would note that intuition or gut reaction is simply our brain processing information at lightening speed. Listening to the intuition is the real skill. I would love to see more studies about flexing that muscle- can we practice trusting our intuition when it matters? I know my intuition never leads me astray and I also know that sometimes I allow logic or peer pressure to overrule my gut. It takes practice- it does not just happen.
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
Ever wonder why you feel an immediate lift when someone who passes by on the street smiles? These are your mirror neurons at work. When someone smiles at you these neurons react by creating the same chemical release as if you yourself had smiled. (Neuroimage 2005)
I have wondered if we are feeding a downward spiral of negative emotion by getting caught in someone’s sadness or anger. My friends and colleagues know I describe myself as having teflon- I am aware of others’ emotions and yet I don’t feel a need to join them in order to be a good friend. I can listen or help without changing my emotional equilibrium. Spongy people (I am borrowing this term from a colleague or mine Martha Beck) take on the emotional climate of those around them.
I’d love to hear what you think- is it better to be teflon or spongy? And in case you are curious, alexithymia is a condition in which one is unable to recognize emotions (both their own and the emotions of others).
Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence.
Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of personality and social psychology, 44(1), 113-126.
Gladwell, M. (2002). The naked face. The New Yorker, 5, 38-49.
Neuroimage. 2005 Jun;26(2):581-91. Epub 2005 Mar 21