Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Deciphering Facial Expression

Boring post title, interesting information.

Researchers set out to discover if teenagers with attachment disorder process facial emotions differently from teenagers with secure attachment. This study was done as part of  the Attachment Adoption Adolescents Research Network (AAARN), an international project focusing on attachment representation in adolescents and their parents.

( a handy sort of organization to know about, which I did not).

That seemed interesting. I never thought  differences in attachment vs. lack of attachment might be linked to how the person interprets facial expressions.

After a whole lot of testing and evaluating which I did not understand, they discovered that the attachment disordered group processed facial expression more slowly and with less accuracy than the control group ("attached" teenagers).

They also found a variety of "significant" deficits in the group with attachment disorder. Most of these are probably not a surprise to anyone who lives with it. Anyway, here they are:

executive function attention
processing speed
visuospatial abilities
cognitive flexibility

They concluded that the deficits were a result of the way the group processed facial emotion. Being slower and less accurate with defining facial expressions seems to hinder other abilities.

The article relates how different attachment styles are shown to involve different area's of the brain. There are visible differences between anxious, avoidant and insecure attachments that can be seen in activated brain regions.

So, they concluded that attachment patterns shape social emotional processing.

Of course, that led me to a pant load of questions!

Could kids with Attachment Disorders (AD) be taught to interpret facial expression?

In working with kids with Autism, a big area of focus is cuing in and interpreting facial expression. Usually, a therapist starts with flash cards of faces with the intention of eventually using real faces. I wonder if that ever becomes 'natural' for the kids. Like, do they see a face and automatically know? Or is it always a 2 step or more process? Would the same work for kids with AD's?

The origins of Autism and the causes of Attachment Disorders are different, does that matter?

If one were to teach a child with AD to more quickly identify emotions, would the other areas (attention, processing speed etc.) improve? The authors of the study seemed to link them.

Since different areas of the brain are involved in different attachment styles, could there be therapies targeted some day to the specific sub-sets? Would that be SO FREAKING AWESOME?

Is the slow processing of other peoples emotions why the kids seem so oblivious sometimes?
Is it why my daughter is so ever-lovin' histrionic? She overplays it because that's the only way she identifies it in others? Maybe she thinks that's the way it is for everyone?
Is it part of why she is so hyper- vigilant to her environment? She doesn't pick up cues from people as to 'the mood of the room' so she obsessively studies what is happening instead?
Could that be why she always tries to dominate the room with herself? She can't identify a mood so she inserts the mood of her choosing?

Though the study was done on adolescents, I am guessing it applies to younger kids as well. I don't think puberty flips a switch that cuts off social- emotional processing, though I could be wrong.

And what causes it? Is it their brains are too overloaded with fear to access the sort of 'higher order' things? Is it because the cause of AD is lack of care and so they don't learn faces in infancy from adults? What else am I not thinking of?

This is the official study:
Attachment Patterns Trigger Differential Neural Signature of Emotional Processing in Adolescents
Authors are listed at the top.

There is a TON of good stuff on this site. It's just a tad overwhelming for those of us without forty seven doctorates in neuropsychology. A smidge. Ahem. Yeeks.


  1. This is very, very interesting Essie. Thanks very much.

  2. This is fascinating! I'm not surprised that children with attachment disorders have trouble identifying facial expressions, but it is amazing to hear how many other areas that affects.

    1. It is! I never thought about it before, but it makes so much sense. I mean, now that other people thought of it, lol!

  3. Coming at this from a mental illness (not attachment) perspective and based on, um, personal experience, mostly (a little bit mine, a whole lot my kid sister’s), I think the early onset of a severe mental illness often (for lack of a better word) stunts social skills… kind of like how folks with, say, a drug or alcohol addiction get “stuck”* at whatever age their addiction kicked into high gear.
    Mental illness is exhausting and debilitating for adults, but more so for a little kid – the line between what is real and what isn’t is so much fuzzier when you are six. Everything’s scarier. (At six, sharks in a backyard pool are terrifying, because you’re probably unaware that it is impossible for sharks to survive in, um, a chlorinated pool at granny’s house. As an adult, there’s at least a chance you’ll see imaginary sharks and think “med check”). The time and energy most kids spent learning stuff… well, a kid with a mental illness spends it trying to stay alive. Finding the right combination of meds takes ages and a four-week, in-patient stint is four weeks not in class, not learning to ‘read’ a room or behave at birthday parties.
    “And what causes it? Is it their brains are too overloaded with fear to access the sort of 'higher order' things? Is it because the cause of AD is lack of care and so they don't learn faces in infancy from adults? What else am I not thinking of?”
    I think, a lot of the time, the slow processing speed, fear (of non-scary things they haven’t yet learned are not actually scary) and social obliviousness looks like hypervigilance. Failing to pick up on social cues translates as trying to dominate a room. And 12 or 13 is an awful age… the pinnacle of Mean Girl-ness, awful for even non-mentally ill girls. Horrific for socially oblivious ones.
    *A friend whose littlest was diagnosed with epilepsy at 2 had a similar experience – the kid was ‘frozen’ in the terrible twos 2+ years, i.e. the poor kid spent a year either seizing or overmedicated until the right med was found when she was 3. The kid didn’t outgrow the terrible twos til she was 4.

    1. funny you mention sharks- Genea went though a few years with a fear of sharks in every body of water we went near. I mean, pools, creeks, everything. Thanks, Discovery Channel.
      You're right, the kids spend all of their energy at school just trying to maintain themselves and it blocks a lot of their learning. It would make sense then that they don't pick up social cues and gain experience interpreting them. I wonder then, are attachment disordered kids pre-disposed to the deficit and circumstances made it worse/harder? There are a lot of neurological things that just happen, like face blindness, without traumatic background.
      Love your comments and perspective- keep 'em coming!

  4. Hm... that is seriously interesting. Maybe if I go in there I can read about "attachment styles". My thought would have been (would still be, really) that Anastasia and Maxim process facial expressions just fine. My husband not so much.

    I think there are some places online where you can test how well you read facial expression. I should hav the whole family do this. Fascinating!!!

    1. See, I can't tell if Genea doesn't get facial cues or if she's too caught up in her patterns to notice/care. Personally I pick up far more from a persons tone of voice rather than their words or expression. Don't know why!

  5. Now I'm also wondering - if they are good at reading facial expressions, does it mean they don't have attachment issues, just PTSD? ODD? ETC?

    Also, by the way, are you familiar with the ACE Study?


    1. If a kid with attachment issues cannot read faces, how can they manipulate/triangulate?

      In order to get other people to do what you want, you presumably need to have some understanding of their motivation.

    2. Annie, I am not familiar with it, but am going to check it out. Fascinating question about other issues- wow, that would be amazing if it were an indicator.
      Caylee, that's a great point. I'm going to have to think on that. Unless because the manipulation relies on reactions to gauge success? Thinking as I type is never good. Gonna think away from keyboard.

    3. My daughter cannot read (or won't read? or doesn't care to read?) facial expressions and she does not triangulate or manipulate. She has one emotion for dealing with things that she doesn't like or doesn't understand: anger.

  6. Fascinating--even the title. :>

    I hav to wonder about cause. Is it the AD that causes this OR is the trauma that causes AD what also causes this. Trauma really messes with the brain.

  7. lol, glad you liked the title! I could not think, and was not in a mood to be creative.
    Right, or are some kids pre-disposed to stuff like 'face blindness', and so when they experience neglect, it develops into an AD?

  8. Wow this is really fascinating. I feel the need to reread it.

    1. Interesting isn't it? It explains a lot, I think, about the apathy I see in my daughter.

  9. This is exactly why Jon spent a year at an autism ABA therapy center. The goal was to teach him to read emotions on other people and to appropriately display his own emotions. Initially he only had two emotions, anger and fear. Thats all he felt and all he expressed. He also thought everyone around him was expressing anger at him. I could be smiling and laughing and he was sure I was furious with him which caused him to spin out of control in rage. He didn't understand humor or jokes, would laugh a fake laugh at strange things or copy others when they laughed. He had no clue what was funny. I can now say that he reads and understands emotions a million times better. He is not perfect but he is also an 8 year old boy. His idea of humor revolves around bodily functions and poop. I highly recommend ABA (Applied Behavioral therapy used for autism) to help with emotions.

    1. ABA is pretty much Skinnerian conditioning that borders on torture. My kindergartner's BFF is a little boy on the spectrum and how Montessori treats him kills me.

      If my girl wants to spend all day in the play kitchen and not eat snack, it's considered a valid choice. If C wants to spend all day in the play kitchen and not eat snack he's considered "non-compliant".

      If you attempt to make my girl sit in a chair and touch her nose 20x in exchange for a skittle, she'd probably do it a few times before wandering off because she's bored, touched her nose 3x, is sick of skittles, hates red skittles or because she's FOUR. If you tried to make her stay? Epic tantrum, thrown skirtles and maybe she'd even push the the therapist out of the way. C is a sweet boy and so far as I can tell his frustration and aggression are justified.

    2. Jane it sounds like the boy is getting Lovaas ABA. It's hardcore stuff and you're dead on, the biggest complaint is that it turns kids into little robots. It's the only therapy "proven" to work, though Lovaas used aversives in his original study, causing physical pain. The study has only been replicated once (w/o aversives), and that was here in Wisconsin which is how I heard about it. I'm surprised a Montessori school would even tolerate it in the building! Usually ABA just means breaking a task down to steps and teaching one step at a time.
      Wendy- I've thought about using an ABA approach with Genea for facial expressions. Did the therapists use flash cards or how did they teach Jon to id ?


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