Masked emotions: Infants born during the pandemic


By Dr. Sairaj Patki,

The COVID-19 pandemic re-introduced the world to certain safety norms like physical distancing and wearing of face masks, which, after a year, have now become part of our daily routines and common practices. The regulations related to mandatory wearing of face masks properly covering the nose and mouth may be lifted in some countries as vaccination picks up pace, but it would still be considered as pro-health behaviour, appropriate public behaviour and even as an act of social conscientiousness. While the health benefits of these practices are immense, their psycho-social repercussions are only recently becoming visible. This article aims to draw the reader’s attention to one such area that is likely to be affected – facial emotional expression recognition in infants.

The importance of the face in human communication

The importance of non-verbal communication has been well highlighted in literature and especially for humans, facial expressions accounts for a huge proportion of information shared between individuals without using spoken language. For centuries, performing and fine artists have utilized this wisdom to accentuate the focus of the audience on the actor’s / subject’s face, by use of various perceptual tools.

What makes facial expressions even more crucial for humans is the fact that while non-verbal cues like gestures, hand movements, and posture may undergo variability across cultures, facial expressions are essentially universal. Facial emotional expression recognition studies, including classical studies by Dr. Paul Ekman and more recent ones by Dr. David Matsumoto, have supported this notion of universality of basic human emotions. Neurological studies have identified brain structures like the fusiform gyrus that enable facial recognition in humans. An in-built brain structure dedicated to this also points to its evolutionary significance.

Face perception in infants

A large body of evidence suggests that infants have a generalized bias to attend to faces and face-like stimuli since birth. While visual acuity improves across infancy, eye-movement and fixation studies have shown, that even six months old infants prefer human-like faces / features rather than non-human stimuli. As they grow, infants learn more specific facial expression and micro-expression generation by mimicking adults around them through observational learning.

Infants growing amidst the pandemic situation

An estimated 116 infants were born globally within the first nine months since the declaration of the pandemic! These infants would have entered the crucial developmental stage of their lives where facial recognition and facial expression generation skills are expected to be fostered. Interaction with strangers in the presence of primary caregivers is an integral part of the first lessons in socialization for infants. They learn the basics of trust and mistrust through these experiences. The social exposure to other humans for these infants born during the pandemic would however be extremely limited. The uneasiness, awkwardness and subtle anxiety experienced by the caregivers when in close proximity with other humans would be sensed by the infant through non-verbal cues like skin pressure, grasp tension, postures, gestures and so on. These first lessons in socialization would unfortunately be coloured with the shades of doubt and anxiety in more cases than not.

For those who actually see humans besides their primary care-givers, a majority of them would see masked faces rather than the usual human face that their brains are wired to perceive. The infant under a usual circumstance too would go through a series of dilemmas when faced with strangers. The facial expressions of the stranger would provide some cues about the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the encounter. Infants exposed to masked strangers however would face severe challenges in making complete sense of the strangers’ intentions and emotions.

To what extent would these special circumstances affect the adulthood social interactions of these infants is something that only time will help understand. Later positive and rich social experiences and encounters may cover up for the early infancy experiences. For some infants, the learning curve for social skills may be steeper than usual. Lack of warm interpersonal interactions was being discussed even before the pandemic struck and socio-emotional skills training for the younger generation was being prescribed. Keeping the deprivation of socialization experienced by the infants born during the pandemic in mind, more proactive efforts by caregivers, teachers and counsellors would be required.

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