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Emotions change with direction:

6 min read

Fear depends on where you look at it

Nalini Ambady, Reginald
Nalini Ambady and Reginald Adams

When you’re angry or afraid, it’s not just how you look but where you look that matters.

If someone looks directly at you with an angry expression, you usually assume that person is mad at you. If she or he looks away, you become unsure. They may be angry with someone or something else. In the latter case, the emotional part of your brain shows more activity.

With fear, it’s the opposite. When someone with a scared expression looks away, you assume they are gazing at whatever is scary. Your brain doesn’t become as active as when the person looks directly at you. He or she might fear you, or not. You don’t have any information about the source of the fear and your brain has a stronger reaction.

In a first-of-its-kind-study, Reginald Adams, a Harvard psychologist, and his colleagues demonstrated this by scanning the brains of 11 people while they viewed images of fearful and angry faces. The result raises the question of why the brain gets more excited when people look afraid of you than when they look angry with you. Why would an averted gaze of anger produce more activity in the fear region of you brain than a direct expression of rage?

A furious look away could mean that there is an irritation that may soon affect you both. A direct look of fear could either mean the person sees you as a threat, or wants your help. “In both cases, the expression is more ambiguous than a direct look of fury, or an averted look of fear,” Adams points out. “Our findings seem to indicate that uncertainty adds to the threatening expression, or that the brain must work harder to make sense out of how much of a threat is present.” The latter seems to be the most likely explanation.

Sudden threats and other emotions are processed by a tiny almond-shaped region called the amygdala, which lies deep in the brain about an inch inward from the ears. What goes on there can be watched on a computer screen connected to a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. The people in the study had their heads in such a device while they looked at fearful and angry expressions and direct and averted glances.

Activation of the amygdala can trigger an automatic flight or fight response. If you see what you think is a snake or a big rat, your amygdala sets off a brain alarm. The fear center connects to other areas of the brain that handle vision, movement, and some cognitive information. If your brain decides that you’re looking at a rattlesnake, it triggers your movement reflexes. If you decide you are only looking at a stick, your response will be more relaxed.

“Our experiment suggests that the amygdala not only detects danger, but also processes information about its source,” Adams says. “When the threat is ambiguous, it seems to work harder to make sense of it. To my knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate that where someone is looking plays an important role in how we process her or his emotional behavior.”

Turning heads

Why did Adams do this experiment in the first place? He was studying nonverbal communication at Dartmouth College when he was struck by something he describes as surprising.” He found many reports from researchers who had studied the link between facial expressions and emotions. There also were studies of how we perceive and process changes in direction of gaze. “But these were done relatively independently of each other,” Adams notes. “Studies of facial expression of emotion were done with faces looking directly at you, while direction researchers generally used neutral faces.”

“For someone looking for something to do for a doctoral dissertation, bridging an important gap between two streams of research was an exciting idea,” Adams recalls. He did the work with several Dartmouth colleagues and Nalini Ambady, an associate professor at Harvard, and they published their research in the June 6 issue of the journal Science.

Adams, now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, has received an award from the National Institutes of Mental Health to continue working on emotions. He plans to resolve some questions raised by his fear and anger experiment and to look into other expressions like disgust/contempt, surprise, joy, sadness, embarrassment, and shame.

“So far we’ve only scratched the surface of an exciting new way to help us understand how the brain perceives emotion,” Adams says. It’s too soon to tell yet, but these kinds of investigations may lead to a better understanding of certain psychological disorders. Autistic people, for example, cannot decipher, or have difficulty deciphering, the nonverbal behavior of others.

Shyness in the head

Other investigators at Harvard have found a connection between an excitable amygdala and whether someone is shy or outgoing.

Twenty years ago, Jerome Kagan, Starch Professor of Psychology, tested the responses of 2-year-old children to unfamiliar people, places, and things. On the basis of whether they exhibited shyness or sociability, caution or boldness, withdrawal or approach, he categorized 13 of them as inhibited and nine as uninhibited. Recently, with the help of colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital, he scanned the brains of these people while they viewed strange and familiar faces. Shy people showed much more activity in their amygdalas than the outgoing ones.

Some excitability at the sight of strange faces and places is normal, but shy people showed a much greater response than their cooler comparisons. Indeed, two of the inhibited subjects had previously been diagnosed with social phobia, a fear of interacting with other people.

“It’s been theorized that behavioral differences that characterize inhibited and uninhibited children relate to the amygdala’s response to novelty,” notes Charles Schwartz, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. “Our study supports this concept.”

Extreme shyness raises the risk of anxiety problems such as panic disorder, social phobia, and depression. Finding that shyness is related to the amygdala might lead to the development of drugs to reduce excitability and give these people more satisfactory lives, Kagan speculates.

The results, however, don’t mean that shy children are doomed to a life of anxiety. “The difference in vulnerability can be compensated for by environment and experience,” says Scott Rauch, one of the authors of the report on these experiments, published in the June 20 issue of Science.

Some of those who showed fearfulness at the age of 2 have overcome it by age 22, Kagan points out.

Whatever the applications of these two new discoveries, it’s a good bet that brain researchers will never look at the amygdala in the same way again.