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Jun. 17 2010 - 9:22 am | 665 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Does Botox impair empathy?

ARLINGTON, VA - JUNE 05:  Recently laid off wo...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Hollywood film directors were among the first to recognize the downside of Botox. Several years ago, Martin Scorsese, whose works include Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and The Departed, became an early and outspoken critic of the anti-aging treatment. The Academy Award-winning director complained that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find an actress who could use her face to express the range of human emotion, especially anger.

It may be worse than the famed director suspected. New evidence is now suggesting that Botox may harm not only the expression of emotion, but also its comprehension. The facial paralysis that does away with unwanted frown lines may cripple a crucial ability to process emotional language.

That’s the conclusion of David Havas, a psychological scientist at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Havas and his colleagues did not set out to study the unintended consequences of the controversial cosmetic treatment. Their goal was to study the role of the nervous system in normal language processing, specifically the idea that people comprehend emotional language in part by involuntarily simulating emotions with their facial nerves and muscles. They used injections of the neurotoxin to disable certain facial nerves as a way of testing this theory.

The scientists studied first-time patients who were scheduled for Botox treatment to get rid of their frown lines—a treatment that works by paralyzing a particular set of facial muscles. Since frowns are an important element in anger and sadness, they wanted to see if disabling the frown muscles impaired comprehension of sad and happy sentences—but not happy ones. They had the patients read dozens of sentences of each kind, both before Botox treatment and two weeks later, timing them to see if there was any slowdown in reading speed as a result of the treatment.

The results were unambiguous. As reported on line this week in the journal Psychological Science, the scientists not only verified their theory of language processing, they also showed that getting rid of frowns selectively impairs the ability to understand angry and sad sentences. In other words, it’s normal to frown—undetectably—when we try to process anger and sadness. If we can’t frown, our emotional understanding breaks down.

The popularity of Botox has of course spread far beyond Hollywood since Scorsese first sounded the alarm about those in the acting biz. The director might now be concerned about the emotional depth of his audience as well.


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  1. collapse expand

    This would explain so much of the behavior we now see…

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    About Me

    I've been a Washington, DC-based science writer for many years, specializing in psychology and human behavior. I currently write a blog for the Association for Psychological Science called "We're Only Human," and am also a regular contributor to Newsweek.com and Scientific American Mind. Crown will be publishing my book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, in September. I am an old-school journalist embracing the world of new media. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. I believe that every news story--whether it's about money or politics or crime or love or health-- is in large part about psychology and the quirks of the human mind. When I am not writing, I am hanging out at Westside Club, riding my bicycle, listening to music and/or cooking for family and friends.

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    For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit my “We’re Only Human” blog. Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at the website Newsweek.com.