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Jonathan Rottenberg, PhD

Jonathan Rottenberg Ph.D.

Botox Treatment Slows Perception of Negative Emotions

Does Botox Dull Emotional Perception?

Our smiles broadcast, hey world, I am pleased. Our frowns say, don't mess with me.

What about the other way around? Do we use our facial muscles to read emotion in the world?

Our default assumption is that our eyes and our brains are the organs dedicated to processing emotional information. New work led by David Havas of the University of Wisconsin, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, provides a fascinating demonstration that our facial muscles share in this job.

The new study reported on 40 people who were treated with Botox. Tiny applications of the nerve poison were used to deactivate muscles in the forehead that cause frowning (the corrugator muscles).

Before and after the Botox treatment, patients were asked to read written statements that carried an emotional tenor, including statements that were angry ("The pushy telemarketer won't let you return to your dinner"); sad ("You open your email in-box on your birthday to find no new emails"); or happy ("The water park is refreshing on the hot summer day.")

The authors used reading time as a proxy for processing speed.

The results showed no change in the time needed to understand the happy sentences. But in a fascinating result, after Botox treatment, the subjects needed more time to read the angry and sad sentences.

The size of the effect was small, but if others replicate it, the implications are large.

Milions of people undergo this cosmetic procedure every year; it's a profound idea that its effects go beyond smoother surface skin to influence the treated person's perception of the outside world. Study results imply that immobilizing muscles that produce angry or sad expressions may take some of the sting out of an insult, some of the tears out of a tear jerker.

Botox treatment is already controversial. Some look askance at the idea of poisoning the face to look younger. Especially when the treatments must be performed repeatedly. If it is confirmed that the procedure dulls emotion perception, critics will surely seize on this as further evidence of the treatment's unwholesomeness.

Perhaps the most interesting implication of the study is scientific. It shows yet again that our systems for communicating and perceiving emotion are interconnected, often in surprising ways.

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