Search and You Will Find: Facial Expressions, Empathy and Altruism

The brain is complex there is no doubt. That is one thing neuroscientists would most likely all agree on. Recent discoveries are, however, uncovering some fascinating and logical connections in the brain. 200221760-001

Scientific studies are converging on the connections between facial expressions and empathy. These studies have implications for how we develop our selves and our leaders. This week we will look at some interesting neuroscience research. Next week we will look at how this relates to emotional intelligence and developing our leaders.

Facial Expressions and Empathy

Last week I met with Marco Iacoboni, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Marco pioneered research on mirror neurons. His latest research confirms the link between empathy and facial expressions. It seems our ability to detect suffering in others is directly linked to our capacity for altruism. This research is yet to be published.

It confirms other recent neuroscience research that has also found that sensitivity to others’ fearful facial expressions predicts individual differences in altruism better than gender, mood, self-reported empathy, or general sensitivity to others’ emotion. Other studies have also confirmed a link between empathy and facial expressions.

This makes sense – if we can see and are more sensitive to others facial expressions when they are experiencing fear, we are more likely to act on it with empathy or altruistic behaviour.

So not only have neuroscientists discovered that people with large amygdalas tend to display more empathy, and behave more altruistically. They have also found a link between facial expressions and empathy, and altruism. This is very important research.

Training Our Brains To Be Kind

As mentioned in last week’s blog, neuroscience has confirmed that children who have been emotionally neglected can develop new neural pathways in the brain. So even if your emotional skills were not developed as highly as you’d like as a child, you can still develop your emotional skills.

That’s why this is important research. Paul Ekman claims to be able to train FBI agents from 50% accuracy to 98% accuracy in facial expression identification.

If we can train people to be more sensitive and aware of other people’s fear responses, can we train them to be more empathetic? Some people have claimed that empathy is hard, even impossible to train. This latest research certainly questions these assertions. Very exciting news for all of us!

What do you think? Do you think there is a connection between facial expressions and empathy?


Ma, Y., Wang, C., and Han, S. (2011) Neural responses to perceived pain in others predict real-life monetary donations in different socioeconomic contexts. Neuroimage Vol. 57, pp. 1273-1280

Knauff, M., Fangmeier, T., Raabe, M. and Greenlee, M. (2009)  A functional brain imaging study on the neutral correlates of altruism in social decision-making. Paper presented at the CogSci 2009(Cognitive Science Society)

Marsh, A., Finger, E., Mitchell, D., Reid, M., Sims, C., Kosson, D., Towbin, K., Leibenluft, E., Pin, D., and Blair, R.J.R. (2008) Reduced Amygdala Response to Fearful Expressions in Children and Adolescents with Callous-Unemotional Traits and Disruptive Behavior Disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry.  Vol. 165, pp. 712-720

Marsh, A. and Blair, R.J.R. (2008) Deficits in facial affect recognition among antisocial populations: a meta-analysis. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.. Vol 32, Issue 3, pp. 454-465

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