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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 protecting us from 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. 

What happens when human smiles remain hidden behind a strip of cloth? If babies primarily see faces partially hidden by masks, how can they become more self-aware and learn to interpret others’ emotions properly? Will they lag in understanding the 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?

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.  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 – just think of your reaction the last time a baby smiled directly at you.

But human expressions are not the only critical, visual elements gone missing in today’s viral climate.  The need to physically distance ourselves from others removes a visual sense of intimacy, close relationship, even trust from social interactions.

Children who have trouble developing basic reading skills often fumble when reading aloud, cannot remember what they are reading, or what they hear read to them. Having underdeveloped visual skills might induce unnecessary fidgeting or difficulty concentrating. Those children might miss visual cues for one or more of many reasons.  Perhaps, their central and peripheral eyesight are not in sync, or their eyesight and listening abilities are uncoordinated, or they simply struggle to visualize.  Recent research shows how dysfunctional mental imagery is involved with patients who have PTSD and mental illness.

Visual processing skills are essential to all aspects of life – learning, social interactions, and sports – for 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 normally to his or her environment.

If brain circuity is underdeveloped or out of synchronization because it its disrupted by injury or disease, children and adults can become confused about their surrounding environment, have limited and/or distorted perception and awareness, and experience difficulties in learning.

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.  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 and comprehending what the teacher is saying.  The ability to shift gaze from teacher to board to book and to notes 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.

An important focus of the Mind-Eye Institute is on building better brains by evaluating and addressing patients’ peripheral visual processing, which comprises an overwhelming percentage of a person’s visual awareness.  Standard eyesight examinations and screenings were developed in the 19th century and are based on conscious attention to non-moving targets, primarily focusing on sharpening the clarity of central eyesight. The Institute uses 21st century neuroscience discoveries and neuro-optometric rehabilitation, combined with new mind-eye techniques, to develop and solidify brain pathways, thereby enabling easier reading and learning. Applying neuroplasticity to help the academic success of children, mind-eye techniques are used worldwide.

The retina is composed of brain tissue, and, by using individualized “brain” glasses to modify the way light passes through it, the Mind-Eye Institute can bring sensory systems into synchronization and alter a child’s – or an adult’s – awareness and attention.

Of course, the role of emotion recognition in development of visual processing skills cannot be understated.  Developmental/behavioral research, as well as neuroimaging studies, indicate that infants not only give selective attention to faces but can discriminate between faces shortly after birth. 

Writing in a 2014 edition of Japanese Psychological Research, scientists state that “face-processing biases…are evident early in infancy.” In his 1971 book Silent Messages, psychologist Albert Mehrabian contends that much of nonverbal communication is facial.  A study published in 2015 in the journal PLoS One indicates that infants as young as three-and-a-half months tend to give greater attention to the smiling faces of females than any other facial expressions – male or female.  The scientists suggest that this gender preference may be due to a “lack of perceptual and social experience” with males.

Of course, all this begs the question: How can parents, grandparents and other family members help children master the visual cues (and their linkage with auditory cues) that are 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.  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. 

Stay safe!

Deborah Zelinsky, O.D.
Founder, Executive Research Director
Mind-Eye Institute

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