Emotional "expressions" in congenitally blind individuals

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Chapter 1 endnote 19, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

If we put all the scientific evidence together, we cannot claim, with any reasonable certainty, that each emotion has a diagnostic facial expression. [...] For evidence on whether people blind since birth make facial expressions, see...

Do people who are blind since birth (a.k.a., congenitally blind) make expressions of emotion that are consistent with the basic emotion method? If so, that would seem to provide evidence for the classical view of emotion. But the answer appears to be no.

In one key study, researchers had congenitally blind and normally sighted adults listen to descriptions of situations that were supposed to elicit anger, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise, and happiness, and asked them to pose the corresponding emotional expressions.[1] Blind and sighted individuals produced similar patterns of facial movements, but neither produced the predicted patterns of the basic emotion method.

Even more telling, when the researchers photographed the blind subjects’ expressions and showed them to a second set of subjects with normal sight, these new subjects had a difficult time labeling them with the “correct” emotion words (except for the smiling “joyful” face).

The second subjects were not very good at choosing the labels to match the first sighted subjects’ posed expressions either, but they were better at labeling the facial configurations of sighted posers than of blind posers. For example, they labeled the surprise face correctly 57% of the time for a sighted poser vs. 28% of the time for a blind poser; for anger, it was 33% vs. 14%; for disgust, 61% vs. 24%; for fear it was equivalently low at 17% vs 9%. Once again, the photos simply didn’t look like those used in the basic emotion method.

What about pride?

There is one study in which blind test subjects "expressed" emotion in a way that was expected by the classical view, but it was not with the face. Blind individuals raise their arms in pride when they win medals at the Special Olympics.[2] This observation has been taken as evidence that pride is an innate emotion whose expression is universal. The problem with this interpretation is that an alternative explanation exists that has never been ruled out.

It is well established that congenitally blind individuals have mental representations that they learn in a way that is likely very similar to sighted people. Examples are color, space, and other visual properties. Congenitally blind individuals, for example, understand the word "blue" as more similar to "green" than to "red.[3][4] Blind individuals have “theory of mind” for what other people see. They understand words like “shimmer” and “peek” in very similar ways to words for sounds (e.g., “boom”) and touch.[5]

If blind individuals automatically and implicitly develop knowledge about a sensory part of the world for which they have no direct experience, then it stands to reason that they can learn about the ways that emotions are typically communicated in their culture, particularly if they are exposed to movies, books, or if they are coached in any way (such as having heard films or descriptions of prior competitions). Blind athletes might therefore have conceptual knowledge about emotion and how to communicate it during very public competitions.

Even normally sighted athletes have conceptual knowledge about emotion that they demonstrate by their facial movements. A study observed Olympic medalists, videotaping them during medal ceremonies. Their  facial movements were assessed in three different contexts:  while waiting behind the podium, while on the podium facing other people, and while on the podium facing the flag. The medalists smiled only when they knew they were being watched by other people.[6]

Notes on the Notes

  1. Galati, Dario, Klaus R.Scherer, and Pio E. Ricci-Bitti. 1997. "Voluntary facial expression of emotion: Comparing congenitally blind with normally sighted encoders." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73 (6): 1363-1379.
  2. Tracy, Jessica L. and David Matsumoto. 2008. "The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (33): 11655–11660.
  3. Shepard, Roger N., and Lynn A. Cooper. 1992. “Representation of Colors in the Blind, Color-Blind, and Normally Sighted.” Psychological Science 3 (2): 97–104.
  4. See also Landau, Barbara and Lila R. Gleitman, 1988. Language and Experience: Evidence from the Blind Child. Harvard University Press.
  5. Koster-Hale, Jorie, Marina Bedny, and Rebecca Saxe. 2014. "Thinking about seeing: Perceptual sources of knowledge are encoded in the theory of mind brain regions of sighted and blind adults." Cognition 133 (1): 65-78.
  6. Fernández-Dols, José-Miguel, and María-Angeles Ruiz-Belda. 1995. "Are smiles a sign of happiness? Gold medal winners at the Olympic Games." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69 (6): 1113-1119.