Do injectables and cosmetic surgery stunt facial interaction?

US experts have warned using Botox and other cosmetic surgery procedures to adjust facial muscle movements can have a significant effect on ‘facial mimicry’, resulting in reduced recognition of key emotions between humans.

For example, you’re walking down the street and coming toward you is a baby in a stroller; the baby looks at you and bursts into a grin.

Most people reflexively smile back and feel positivity inside. The baby may then react by smiling even more broadly and kicking its feet with excitement, which further deepens your smile and adds to the warm feeling in your chest.

But The New York Times (NYT) has reported that ‘there’s convincing scientific evidence the same kind of mutual engagement and interplay — with infants, or anyone else — would be difficult to achieve’ if you couldn’t smile naturally ‘with the usual crinkles around your eyes and creases in your cheeks’.

The NYT notes ‘experts say mirroring another person’s facial expressions is essential for not only recognising emotion, but also feeling it. That’s why anything that disrupts one’s ability to emote is cause for concern, particularly in an age when Botox and other cosmetic procedures that paralyse, stretch, plump or otherwise alter the face are commonplace.’

Permanently pouty lips and smooth brows ‘might be good for selfies, but research suggests they flatten your effect, disconnecting you from your feelings and the feelings of others’.

Professor Paula Niedenthal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has published several studies on facial mimicry and its emotional and social importance, explained: ‘People these days are constantly news rearranging their facial appearance in ways that prevent engaging in facial mimicry, having no idea how much we use our faces to coordinate and manage social interactions.’

Since 2000, use of Botox injections in the US is up more than 800% and soft tissue fillers up 300%; accompanying them has been the boom in ‘mini-facelifts’ — where patients ‘can take a more incremental approach to cosmetic surgery, getting their eyes, foreheads, chins or cheeks done à la carte’.

In addition, the latest annual member survey by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery highlights the growing trend in ‘prejuvenation’ where patients seek cosmetic work in their 20s and 30s ‘to get ahead of ageing by immobilising, filling or surgically lifting their faces before wrinkles and sagging can even start’.

The NYT summed up: ‘It’s worrying because every time you interact with another person — romantic partners, friends, family, colleagues, clients, babies in strollers — the two of you subconsciously and subtly reflect each other’s facial expressions.

By mirroring the other person’s expressions, you not only signal you are engaged and participating, but it’s also a kind of feedback look that helps you empathise. If you hinder your ability to do that even slightly, you’re changing the social dynamic between you and the other person.’

Professor Jeffrey Cohn at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies the link between lack of facial expressiveness and depression, added: ‘Muscle movements in the face sustain interactions between people, and if you take that out, you’re working with a blank slate. That’s not an effective way of maintaining rapport or establishing connection.’

And with other researchers finding people injected with Botox in the crucial expressive muscles around the eyes and forehead had greater difficulty and were slower at interpreting and understanding emotions, Professor David Hayes at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater commented: ‘I think we might be grossly underestimating just how powerful our facial expressions are. We have to recognise how informationally rich facial feedback is and, when we block it, we are cutting off a major channel about our own emotions and information about social emotions.’