Covid-19 mask rule means learning to better use our 'smize'

Media release
10 August 2020

With all Victorian adults and teens now having to don facial coverings, a Deakin social neuroscientist says we may emerge from this experience more attuned to other forms of social communication.

Deakin School of Psychology Cognitive Neuroscience Unit Associate Lecturer, Dr Soukayna Bekkali, says that wearing masks when in public for an extended period may lead to heightened sensitivity to reading alternative social cues, such as eye contact and gaze, movement of the brows, body language, and social contextual cues.

"On average more than half of our communication is non-verbal, with facial expression serving as a key part of this. When an element of communication is diminished, as we are currently experiencing with the mask mandate in response to the COVID-19, we become highly attuned and skilled at working with what's left," Dr Bekkali said.

"Depending on how long we have to wear masks for, it would certainly be interesting to see how our abilities to understand others develop, as we become more sensitive to other sources of information in the environment – including reading our eyes."

Dr Bekkali says that the term 'smize', once coined by the modelling industry, can be useful to the wider population.  

"We can decipher a lot about how someone is feeling, thinking, or communicating, via the top part of the face. In fact, research suggests that we can decipher the difference between a genuine smile and a false smile by reading the eye and brow area alone, suggesting that, when the modelling industry came up with the term of 'smize', they were onto something," she said.

Despite the fact that much of our ability to read and process facial cues is developed at a very young age, Dr Bekkali says that parents need not worry about young children's development being negatively impacted or delayed by the compulsory mask rule.

"It's really important to remember that many of the important interactions critical to a young child's social development come from our caregivers and families at home," she said.

"During the early years of life, children develop social cognitive abilities, such as facial decoding skills, emotion recognition, and social communication, from interactions with their caregivers. Infants and toddlers develop a comprehensive neural system that allows them to draw a link between a physical action, such as a smile, and the corresponding emotion and internal state such as happiness. The mask rule doesn't apply in the home, so nothing changes to affect this critical developmental process."

Dr Bekkali believes we can also look to other parts of the world, where it's environmentally necessary or culturally required to cover parts of the face.

"There's no evidence to show that covering the face outside of the home has any negative impact on how children learn to communicate," she said.

"When face-to-face learning returns, it's understandable that children spending a lot of time seeing people with their faces covered, such as teachers or caregivers, may concern some parents but there's great alternatives for people who interact regularly with children. Childcare workers taking care of very small children, for example, can wear transparent face shields, which allows for visual non-verbal communication whilst also maintaining safety against COVID-19 transmission.

"Overall, the benefits of wearing of face masks in protecting the community far outweigh what we're losing from not seeing the bottom half of the face."

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