What could be an easier fountain of youth? A few well-placed injections and wrinkles disappear. Botox is one of the most popular cosmetic procedures in the world for those who want to remove wrinkles and give themselves a more youthful appearance. It’s even become more popular among younger women in their late 20s and early 30s who are just starting to show some of the signs of aging. A miracle? Not quite. This popular anti-aging treatment may be having a strange effect on people’s ability to read emotions in others.
For the uninitiated, Botox is a purified form of botulin toxin, a substance that is used to temporarily paralyze facial muscles in order to reduce wrinkles. By now, many people are familiar with the appearance of one who has recently received Botox injections. The fine lines and wrinkles in their faces have been smoothed away, but their faces may also also have a peculiar dullness to them. Because their facial muscles have been paralyzed, Botox patients are unable to form micro-expressions, the small involuntary facial expressions that often reveal what a person is feeling on an unconscious level. These are small thing such as a slightly furled brow that shows when someone is slightly concerned or angry or a tiny wince when they hear unpleasant news. We don’t think too much about these tiny changes in expression, but they are a large part of interpersonal communication. Our minds look for them on a subconscious level, and when they are effectively removed through Botox injections the effect can be unnerving. In extreme cases, Botox patients become blank slates, and communicating with them is often compared to speaking to a static image.
Not being able to read someone’s facial expressions because of a cosmetic procedure may sound a little unnerving, but Botox may also have a similar effect on those who receive the injections as well. Recent research performed at Duke University suggests that Botox may actually dull empathy in patients. The idea is that much of how we perceive emotions in other people partially comes from the imitation of the micro-expressions that are all but eliminated by the toxin. Because those who have received too much or misplaced Botox is unable to furl their brows or imitate other tiny facial expressions in others, they lose some of their ability to empathize with others. One theory suggests that when people communicate with others, the subconscious facial expressions that they make send signals to the brain that help interpret what others are feeling. When the facial muscles are paralyzed and unable to make those expressions, the brain doesn’t receive those signals. It’s entirely possible that those who regularly receive Botox injections may slowly lose the ability to read emotions in others.
It is clear that Botox doesn’t completely remove one’s ability to know what others are feeling, but the fact that their empathy is dulled is indeed alarming. However, it also provides insight into how people communicate and empathize with others. Many people with emotional disorders lack the ability to empathize with others, but the research that has been performed on those who have received Botox injections may suggest that the problem in some people is physical as opposed to psychological. Since empathy is also the key to long-term relationship satisfaction, perhaps this theory could provide some insight and eventually help those who have struggled with relationships because of their emotional difficulties.
Certainly it is not the case that every Botox procedure is problematic. The big picture is far from that. Many individuals are happy with their results and as far as we know, these have not negatively impacted their relationships. However, at Stanfield we are concerned about the role of empathy in every day communication, in parent-child interaction and the development of caring bonds. Empathy and mirroring are key components of healthy child development. Attachment studies underscore the importance of the infant’s ability to read the facial expression of her caregivers. Does Botox interfere with this process? As educators we offer this piece as food for thought. Know that every medical procedure has a potential downside and in the case of Botox, this may be more than skin deep.
Copyright 2013 James Stanfield Company. All Rights Reserved.
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The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.