Experience Alters Perception

Ian Goddard igoddard at erols.mom
Tue Jun 18 21:35:21 EST 2002

 Here's another example of how environmental stressors can 
 significantly modify neurology. This tends to counter the 
 prevailing paradigm of biological psychiatry that sees 
 atypical behavior as inherently indicative of internally
 sourced neurological malfunction. http://IanGoddard.net



Experience Alters How We Perceive Emotion

Because people recognize the same emotions across languages and
cultures, psychologists have long suspected that a person's ability
to perceive basic emotions is innate. However, a new study published
in the June 18 early edition of the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences suggests that experience can alter the way
people see emotions.

Led by University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist Seth Pollak, the
study examined how children categorize facial expressions as happy,
sad, angry or fearful based on one particular emotional experience -
physical abuse. Studying children who had been abused, Pollak says,
offered an opportunity both to examine the effects of atypical
experience on how children think about emotions and to possibly
identify new interventions that could help abused children more
effectively manage resulting behavioral problems.

For this study, Pollak invited both abused and non-abused children,
8 to 10 years old, to his Child Emotion Research Laboratory. There,
they played computer "games" that presented digitally morphed photos
of facial expressions that ranged from either happy to fearful,
happy to sad, angry to fearful or angry to sad. While some of the
faces expressed a single emotion, most were blends of two emotions.

In one of the games, the children saw a single face and had to
choose which emotion it expressed the most. Because many images 
were a composite of emotions, this task allowed the researchers to
determine how the children perceived different expressions.

Pollak, along with colleague Doris Kistler from the Waisman Center,
a national center dedicated to advancing knowledge about human
development, found that the two groups of children did categorize
emotional expressions differently. While both abused and non-abused
children generally responded the same way to expressions showing
mostly happiness, sadness or fear, abused children identified more
faces as being "angry," rather than fearful or sad. Even though an
expression would show, for example, 60 percent fear and 40 percent
anger, abused children would identify the latter emotion.

"There aren't differences in how the children recognize pictures of 
faces, but in how they categorize those faces. The abused children
were more sensitive to anger," Pollak says. "Experience can shift
where a person draws the boundary of a particular emotion, and 
this idea runs counter to claims that boundaries for emotions are

Pollak says that the neural processes the brain uses to perceive 
and categorize emotion might be innate but that how people actually
perceive and understand expressions of emotion can be shaped by

Pollak's latest finding confirms the results of one of the
psychologist's earlier studies, which found that children who were
abused exhibited more brain electrical activity than non-abused
children when shown angry faces, as opposed to other facial

"It may be the case that physically abused children develop a
broader category of anger because it's adaptive for them to notice
when adults are angry," he says.

But while this sensitivity could be protective in a threatening
environment, it could be disadvantageous in others. An abused child
might over-interpret a social cue, such as an accidental ball toss
during recess, to be hostile. As a result, the child might try to
protect himself by lashing out, calling names or exhibiting other
inappropriate behaviors. By recognizing an abused child's
sensitivity to cues of anger, Pollak says psychologists may be able
to help these children respond more appropriately.

Through his research, Pollak hopes to not only understand better 
the effects of experience on how a person perceives emotion but 
to identify neurological aspects that are also affected by such

"We are trying to add to the body of literature demonstrating the
behavior problems observed in abused children," Pollak says. "We're
looking at the problem of child abuse from the perspective of
neuroscience and the developing brain." By doing so, he hopes to
pinpoint underlying mechanisms that could lead to the development 
of tailored interventions to help abused children.

Pollak's work is supported by the National Institute of Mental
Health and the UW-Madison Graduate School.

For more information on Pollak's work, visit:

NOTE TO PHOTO EDITORS: High resolution photos of Seth Pollak, as
well as images of the digitally morphed facial expressions used 
in the study, are available at


  "To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals." Ben Franklin

  Caloric Restriction: http://IanGoddard.net/cr.htm
  Fat to Thin: http://IanGoddard.net/me-cr.htm


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