It's well known that the effects of child abuse linger long after the child is separated from the abusers. For example, many abused children have trouble dealing with normal social situations, and develop behavior problems at school or on the playground. In this Science Update, you'll hear about a study that may help explain why this happens.
How abused children face the world. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
Children who have been physically abused often develop social problems. They can be fearful, defensive, and quick to misinterpret other people's intentions.
Now, University of Wisconsin psychologist Seth Pollak has gained new insight into this situation. In a recent study, he showed both abused and non-abused children pictures of faces expressing basic emotions. Some pictures were actually composites of two emotions, blended by a computer. Pollak says the abused children tended to label these blends differently.
They had broader, or more inclusive, categories of anger. In other words: they were able to take ambiguous faces, which were really blends, say 50 percent of anger and 50 percent of another emotion, and instead of being unsure about what emotion that was or guessing, they tended to say that was anger.
Based on further research, Pollak suspects that these children's brains actually become more responsive to tiny glimmers of hostility.
What their perceptual systems have done is become very sensitive to any sign that somebody's angry, as a way to predict that they might be harmed.
He says understanding this may lead to new kinds of therapy, which would help these children adjust to non-threatening environments. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.
Making Sense of the Research
On one level, it seems pretty obvious that children who were abused might have social problems that carry over into the rest of their lives. But figuring out exactly how and why this happens is the tricky part. Pollak's research focuses on the very specific issue of how children perceive and interpret facial expressions.
This issue has resonance not only for abused children, but also for the field of psychology in general. That's because it's traditionally been assumed that the way we perceive certain basic emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, and anger – is actually hard-wired into our brains from birth. Along with this belief has come the assumption that the way we perceive these emotions isn't really affected by our personal experience.
There are good reasons for this belief. The perception of basic emotions in facial expressions is something that remains consistent across all languages and cultures. The original pictures that Pollak used for his study – pictures of faces showing happiness, sadness, anger, and fear – illustrate this well. These same pictures have been widely studied for decades, and around the world, people of all cultures and backgrounds generally agree on what a happy face looks like, what a sad face looks like, and so on. It stands to reason that these perceptions are something we're born with, not something we learn.
Pollak's research doesn't contradict this, but it adds an extra level of nuance. Children who are abused may still be born with the same emotional perception that everyone else has. But after suffering from a pattern of abuse, these perceptions may be altered: they develop a heightened sensitivity to anger, at the expense of being able to recognize ambiguity and mixed emotion. And if their original ability to perceive emotions in faces was embedded in their brain circuitry, then this circuitry must somehow change in order for their perception to change.
This research may have implications beyond child abuse. Any children who are exposed to emotional trauma, including neglected children and the children of parents with mood disorders, may experience changes in the way they perceive emotions. And while that may be adaptive at home, it can be profoundly maladaptive in the world outside.
Now try and answer these questions:
- What's different about the way abused children perceive facial expressions?
- Why is this surprising to psychologists?
- What reasons are there for the belief that emotional perception is hard-wired into the brain?
- Can you think of other examples of abilities or skills that people are born with, but which can be altered by a person's experience or upbringing?
- What are the challenges in overcoming the way that abused children perceive anger? Do you think that therapy would affect the child's brain chemistry in the same way that abuse might? Why or why not?
The University of Wisconsin's Child Emotion Research Lab is where Pollak and his colleagues conduct their studies.
The Child Abuse Prevention Network has lots of information on the effects of child abuse and how to prevent it.
PsychWeb contains information and links for students and teachers of psychology, definitely skewed toward older students.
Brain Games contains links to many online games for various ages on the topic of neuroscience.