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Who Is That Masked Man? Our Children Need to Know  

Important Visual Cues Lie Hidden Behind COVID-19 Facial Masks

Let’s face it.  Masks may be preventing spread of the COVID-19 virus, but they are covering much of our facial expressions, which play a key role in nonverbal communication and are particularly important in a baby and child’s emotional maturation, self-awareness, and development of social and academic skills.

So, comments Deborah Zelinsky, OD, the founder and executive director of the Mind-Eye Institute, based in Northbrook, Ill. 

“What happens when human smiles remain hidden behind a strip of cloth?” she asks. “If babies primarily see faces partially hidden by masks, how can they become more self-aware of their own image and learn to interpret others’ emotions properly? Will they lag in understanding subtle visual cues that later become so necessary for reading, language development and the ability to interact in socially acceptable ways with their peers in school?”

Other experts concur with Dr. Zelinsky’s concerns. 

A research report in a 2015 issue of the British Journal of Developmental Psychology indicates that “sensitivity to facial and vocal emotion is fundamental to children's social competence.” Some scientists also link “emotion recognition” to academic growth.  Another study, appearing in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine, suggests that seeing others smile stimulates similar neurons in one’s own brain, resulting in an unconscious, automatic, smiling response. 

“In other words, another person’s smile activates the ‘rewards section’ of one’s own brain,” Dr. Zelinsky says.  “For a child, this process can play an important part in developing a visual understanding of the surrounding environment.  Smiling can literally reprogram the brain. A whole movement based on the impact of a smile can be found at .” www.thekeepsmilingmovement.com .”

Children who have trouble developing basic reading skills often cannot remember what they are reading or what is read to them, sometimes fumble when reading aloud, unnecessarily fidget, or experience difficulties concentrating, Dr. Zelinsky says. “Such underdeveloped visual skills influence their awareness of visual cues. The most common reasons for that lack of awareness are often when their central and peripheral eyesight sensory systems are not in sync, or their eyesight and listening abilities are uncoordinated, or if they simply struggle to visualize.”

Visual processing skills are essential to all aspects of learning – for both children and adults. The term “visual processing” refers to the brain’s almost instantaneous ability, consciously and subconsciously, to take in external sensory signals (from eyesight, hearing, smell, taste and touch), combine them with a person’s internal sensory signals and then process the information, allowing a person to react and respond to his or her environment.

“If brain circuity is out of synchronization because it its disrupted by injury or disease or is underdeveloped, people can become confused about their surrounding environment, have limited awareness or skewed perceptions, and experience difficulties in learning,” Dr. Zelinsky explains.

Authors of a German study published last year (2019) in the international journal Folia Phoniatrica et Logopaedica report that “the ability to recognize emotions from various nonverbal behaviors such as facial expression…is a cognitive skill,” with “important implications for both social and emotional development in humans, especially with regards to communication.  Children who are able to identify the expression on a peer’s face are more likely to respond in a prosocial manner to others’ emotional displays.”

Proper coordination of sensory systems and a strong understanding of visual cues are particularly important in the school setting, Dr. Zelinsky emphasizes. 

“Students must use some of their many visual systems to maintain awareness of a teacher’s facial expressions, body posture and movements while also looking at information presented on a classroom screen or board and simultaneously listening to and comprehending what the teacher is saying.  The ability to shift gaze (and attention) from teacher to board or from board to desk needs to be automated, synchronized, and accomplished by tuning out distractions, such as the whispering of nearby students or sounds of others shuffling papers.  Many visual and auditory systems must be combined to achieve efficient school performance,” she says.

Dr. Zelinsky is recognized worldwide for her studies of retinal stimulation and her innovative work in evaluating and addressing retinal processing disorders.

“The retina is an overlooked part of the central nervous system,” she says, “and by changing the way light enters the retina, we can simultaneously affect body posture and biochemistry, as well as a person’s spatial awareness, movement, perception of surrounding environment and selective attention to sound.”

Through careful modulation of retinal signaling using customized therapeutic “brain” glasses – Brainwear™, the Mind-Eye Institute is helping patients who have learning challenges to develop new visual skills, and often helping those with damaged brain circuitry as the result of injury or disease to redevelop some of their lost skills.  Dr. Zelinsky has devoted her career to neuro-optometric rehabilitation and the development of advanced mind-eye techniques and innovative methods for assessing brain function.

Of course, the role of emotion recognition in development of visual processing skills cannot be understated.  In his 1971 book Silent Messages, psychologist Albert Mehrabian contends that more than 50 percent of nonverbal communication is facial.  Researchers say that even a newborn can differentiate a mother’s face from others within hours after birth and can become quite skilled at facial discrimination and recognition of emotion, particularly smiles, in different situations during the first eight months of life.

All this begs the question: How can parents, grandparents and other family members help children master the visual cues so needed for proper development when so many faces – even those of visiting family members – are masked?

“One way is by reading aloud to children with vocal emotion and then using facial expression to mirror it, such as a grin or large smile for happiness, pursed lips for anger and a turned down mouth for sadness,” says Dr. Zelinsky.  “Play a game with older children.  Put on a mask and ask them to decipher what feelings you are expressing just by looking at your eyes.  Also know that some companies even sell cards depicting a variety of faces expressing a range of emotions. These cards can help children imitate and identify expressions.

“Most importantly, remember there are smiles lurking somewhere behind those COVID masks.  Just help children find them while they are developing lifelong visual skills,” Dr. Zelinsky says.

For more information, go to www.mindeye.com and to www.thekeepsmilingmovement.com.

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