Does Botox impair human understanding?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

By Wray Herbert

Hollywood film directors were among the first to recognize the downside of Botox. Several years ago, Martin Scorsese, whose works include Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Departed, became an early and outspoken critic of the anti-aging treatment. The Academy Award-winning director complained that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find an actress who could use her face to express the range of human emotion, especially anger.

It may be worse than the famed director susepcted. New evidence is now suggesting that Botox may harm not only the expression of emotion, but also its comprehension. The facial paralysis that does away with unwanted frown lines may cripple a crucial ability to mimic and process emotional language.

That’s the conclusion of David Havas, a psychological scientist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Havas and his colleagues did not set out to study the unintended consequences of the controversial cosmetic treatment. Their goal was to study the role of the nervous system in normal language processing, specifically the idea that people comprehend emotional language in part by involuntarily simulating emotions with their facial nerves and muscles. They used injections of the neurotoxin to disable certain facial nerves as a way of testing this theory.

The scientists studied first-time patients who were scheduled for Botox treatment to get rid of their frown lines—a treatment that works by paralyzing a particular set of facial muscles. Since frowns are an important element in anger and sadness, they wanted to see if disabling the frown muscles impaired comprehension of sad and happy sentences—but not happy ones. They had the patients read dozens of sentences of each kind, both before Botox treatment and two weeks later, timing them to see if there was any slowdown in reading speed as a result of the treatment.

The results were unambiguous. As reported on line this week in the journal Psychological Science, the scientists not only verified their theory of language processing, they also showed that getting rid of frowns selectively impairs the ability to understand angry and sad sentences. In other words, it’s normal to frown—undetectably—when we try to process anger and sadness. If we can’t frown, our emotional understanding breaks down.

The popularity of Botox has of course spread far beyond Hollywood since Scorsese first sounded the alarm about the acting biz. Indeed, the director might now be worried about the emotional depth of his viewing audience as well.

Wray Herbert’s new book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits, will be published by Crown in September. Excerpts from “We’re Only Human” appear regularly in The Huffington Post and Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 5:16 PM


At 5:38 PM , Blogger Rush said...

I wonder why Havas assumes that a slower response to emotional sentences equals impaired comprehension? Is effective comprehension necessarily fast comprehension? When it comes to emotions, I'd expect a faster response to be more shallow, more like a knee-jerk reaction. A slower response could be more deeply sensed, or more accurate, or more fresh.

Years ago, philosopher and psychologist Eugene Gendlin demonstrated that people who make progress in psychotherapy (that is, those who effectively process their emotions) show characteristic pauses in their speech, when they appear to be groping for words, or when they seem somewhat confused about what they are trying to say. People who don't make progress, on the other hand, keep right on talking without such pauses. The ones who do make progress apparently take time in their pauses to accurately match their words to an inner sense of meaning that Gendlin termed the felt sense. Perhaps Botox cosmetic treatment--rather than interfering with emotions--actually fosters this more productive kind of emotional processing.

In any case, before Havas can claim to have verified his theory of language processing, he needs to do another couple of controls in his experiments. For one, he needs to compare the effects of immobilizing and non-immobilizing doses of Botox, since Botox can have powerful neurological effects even when it doesn't paralyze the muscles, and those effects could account for Havas's results reported so far. Second, he needs to compare the effects of Botox injected in the frown muscles to Botox injected to another part of body not involved in emotional expression but where nerves are still close to the surface, for example, the bottom of the feet. I predict he'll find that Botox has exactly the same effect when injected at such "non-emotional" sites as it does when injected in the face.


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