The Hidden Benefits of Hiding Your Face Behind a Mask

To counteract your face mask fatigue, consider these 6 benefits.

Posted Jun 20, 2020

You might be over wearing face masks. However, public health regulations mandate that you comply with your town or state’s regulations and cover your face while in public. You may feel that a mask makes it hard to breathe and limits your ability to interact socially. Depending on your political persuasion, you may even feel that facemasks represent government overreach into your personal health decisions. If you’re a healthcare worker, this face mask fatigue may not be relevant to your life but to everyone else's.

Either way, wearing a face mask does limit your ability to read the emotions of others and to have yours accurately perceived. Indeed, as noted by University of Bern’s Mihai Dricu and University of Zurich’s Sascha Frühholz (2020), when trying to decide how the people you’re interacting with are feeling, your “neurocognitive system needs to extract sensory information from different sensory channels, such as facial and vocal expressions and body postures, integrate this data into a gestalt percept, and then interpret it” (p. 1533). Without the sensory channel of the face, this gestalt precept may be significantly impaired, according to this logic.

Dricu and Frühholz refer to this process of reading emotions as one of perceptual decision-making. In an extensive analysis of previous studies, the Swiss author team sought to understand how the visual cues from the face eventually inform the analysis the brain provides of how the people around you are feeling. Using data from 107 published brain scan studies involving emotion decision-making, the Swiss researchers proposed a model that traces within the brain the initial registration of information from the vision area of the brain through to the final interpretation of that information in the frontal areas of the cortex.

That all-important nonverbal emotion information you receive from someone’s face, the authors suggest, eventually leads to a point in the decision-making process where you “mentalize” about what the other person might be feeling. In other words, you put yourself in that person’s place and try to feel what you believe to be the way they’re feeling. The brain structures involved in this process are different from those involved in the interpretation of verbal information, which primarily rely on the language parts of the brain.

To put this process into simpler terms, if you see a person smiling, you try to understand that person's inner state of mind by matching it to the way you feel when you smile. This basic form of “mindreading,” then, relies heavily of appraisal as you try to match the inner state of the people whose facial gestures you can observe with the way you're feeling when your face makes that expression. When half of those gestures are obscured, you may become stuck without an easy inference.

Although you may regard the loss of facial information as a drawback in your everyday interactions, consider the possible upside of the situation when everyone is wearing a mask. This becomes the first hidden benefit of facemasks. Now look at the complete list of five with the "plus one" referring to the overriding benefit that may outweigh all the rest:

1.  Others can’t as clearly read your emotions. Without every muscle in your face visible to the outside world, you’re free to use the obscured lower half to make any kind of expression you’d like. You can enjoy without restraint some of your darker emotional reactions to people, ranging from dislike or disapproval to sarcastic or other kinds of inappropriate emotions, even if just to amuse yourself. You can even talk quietly to yourself without anyone knowing.

Of course, you have to keep that poker face in the upper third of facial muscles, especially the eyes, but the rest of your muscles can do whatever they want underneath the fabric.

2.  You can’t read other people’s emotions either. It’s true that reading emotions is part and parcel of interpersonal communication, but if you are overly sensitive to being criticized by others, a facemask will take this potential source of anxiety literally out of the picture. Free from worry about how they’re reacting to you, it’s possible you’ll be able to relax and, in the process, actually be more effective in your relationships.

3.  You can spend less money and time on grooming. Men are growing “coronavirus beards,” and women have no need to buy lipstick or even any face makeup (other than for the eyes). If you have a skin breakout, no one will see it, and only you will be bothered by bad breath. Letting the bottom half of your face go, at least out in public, may even save you time as you prepare for your day.

4.  A facemask can be used to make a fashion statement. The standard protective masks are, of course, a standard white or blue. However, if you’re not in a situation in which you are providing healthcare services, but just need to cover up while out in public, there’s no end to the possibilities for exotic prints, bright colors, and various glamorous add-ons (think sequins).

If you’ve mastered the art of constructing your own, you don’t have to worry about using a practical material, because you can make new ones rather than having to wash them so frequently. Your creation may even become the source of "mask envy" in people who marvel at your ingenuity.

5.  A face mask can make a public statement. You’ve undoubtedly observed people marching in the streets with masks that match their cause. A mask is more visible even than a t-shirt for that purpose, and it is infinitely malleable to the occasion.

At another level, though, wearing a facemask shows that you have the good of others in mind. As public health experts so often state, even if you’re not concerned about contracting the virus yourself, the wearing of a facemask shows that you’re concerned about the health of the people important to you in your life.

The “plus one.” All of the above benefits relate to the social and psychological benefits of wearing masks. The additional benefit, the one that overrides all of these is that you actually are doing your part to help minimize the spread of the pandemic, helping not just those you love but the many thousands your mask may protect.

To sum up, face mask fatigue is just one of the many forms of fatigue people feel with COVID-19’s continuing effects on daily life. Seeing the humor, and possible benefits, can help you overcome fatigue and build resilience.

References

Dricu, M., & Frühholz, S. (2020). A neurocognitive model of perceptual decision‐making on emotional signals. Human Brain Mapping, 41(6), 1532–1556. doi-org.silk.library.umass.edu/10.1002/hbm.24893