Cerebrum Article

Losing Face

Experts weigh in on the impact mask-wearing may have on children’s education, mental health, and brain development

Published: April 15, 2021
Author: Kayt Sukel

Illustration by Ori Toor

In the summer of 2020, as school districts around the country were announcing mask mandates as part of their plans to safely re-open schools in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, a series of memes made the rounds on social media. While their content and images varied, the basic messaging of these posts was the same: Seeing others wearing masks would be detrimental to a student’s development. In fact, these alarming missives asserted, masking rules could lead to permanent psychological and social damage for kids across the globe.

“This is probably the question, as a developmental psychologist, I’ve been asked the most lately by colleagues and other parents,” says Vanessa LoBue, director of the Child Study Center at Rutgers University. “Parents are worried that making their kids wear a face mask could have unintended consequences. People are asking me whether their kids will be able to understand what their teachers are saying—or the social and emotional nuances of what’s being communicated to them so they can learn how to appropriately respond to it. They want to know if it’s going to cause unnecessary anxiety in their kids, if it’s going to get in the way of normal development. There are definitely a lot of questions.”

Human faces, to steal a line from Walt Whitman, contain multitudes. Whether it’s the righteous joy embodied by an open-mouthed laugh or the subtle contempt of a curled lip, people of all ages rely on others’ faces to help them navigate their social environments. Our expressions, whether we intend them to or not, convey all manner of vital information. Those bashful smiles and pursed lips reveal quite a bit about what we feel—and offer guidance to others on how to best respond to us. This is especially the case if our words and expressions do not match.

“There are a lot of things that are really important for human communication,” says Seth Pollak, head of the Child Emotion Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And human faces are definitely one of the most important of them.”

Something Special About Faces

In order to make our way in the world, human beings, like other animals, need to be able to recognize objects. The world is full of things that can help us or hinder us as we navigate our surroundings; distinguishing between the two is vital. Faces, however, are a special kind of object. So special, in fact, that they have their own specific real estate in the brain, the fusiform face area in the temporal lobe, which is solely responsible for facial recognition.  Kang Lee, head of the Development Lab at the University of Toronto, says humans, as a social species, rely on faces to glean information about emotions and social interactions from quite an early age. That information then helps inform our behavior.

“As humans evolved from [non-human] primates, we shed a lot of facial hair,” he explains. “There’s good reason for it—it highlights the eyes and other facial features so we can read important information about another person. By just looking at a face you can see what group or race they belong to, their age, and whether they are male or female. Once you make social contact, the face also is a source of emotional information. The brain can very efficiently manipulate the facial muscles to convey different kinds of emotions, even extremely subtle changes in our emotions. It’s not a surprise that the brain has set aside a special area so we can quickly perceive and process this information.”

No sooner do infants enter the world than they start looking for faces. Lee says it is a vital part of child development, even at this early age.

“A newborn will quickly lock on to any faces in the environment,” he says. “Their eyes are driven to faces and, within 28 hours of age, they can already recognize their own mother’s face. We have an incredible affinity for faces, and that comes with an innate ability to orient to and recognize faces.”

Masking Emotions?

Given that affinity, it is not surprising that many now wonder about what cloaking half the face may mean not only for development, but also for social and emotional processing. With masks concealing the suggestive contortions of the mouth and nose—which can signal the difference between a smile and a sneer—how might day-to-day mask-wearing affect how we perceive others, and they us?

Claus-Christian Carbon , a perceptual psychologist at Germany’s University of Bamberg, says he was curious about whether a mask might impede how people read emotions. He asked 36 individuals between the ages of 18 and 87 to look at photos of individuals who had standard medical masks digitally added to the picture, and determine whether the faces depicted anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, or neutral emotion. Immediately following, the study participants were asked to assess their confidence in their judgment on a scale of one to seven (“very unconfident” to “very confident”). He says he was not surprised that participants had more difficulty judging emotions, especially between photos of happy and emotionally neutral faces. He has since replicated the results in a group of children between the ages of nine and ten years, though the results have not yet been published.

“If you don’t have as much information about the face, it makes sense that processing will be hampered,” Carbon says. “But what we also saw was that participants had lower confidence in their own perceptual ability when reading those faces. Given that emotional expressions are one of the most efficient ways of communicating to other people, this is something that does have an impact. People will have to rely on other cues, like context or a person’s tone or gestures, to help them understand what emotion a person may be trying to express.”

Ashley Ruba, a post-doctoral fellow in Pollak’s lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with Pollak, conducted a similar experiment on 81 children between ages 7 to 13. Unlike Carbon’s study, this experiment tested the children only on photos depicting sadness, anger, and fear after the photos were digitally altered to add a surgical mask or sunglasses. The Wisconsin researchers also found that study participants were less accurate at reading emotions on masked compared to unmasked faces, but their accuracy was still above chance. Given that, outside the laboratory, children will have access to the other contextual cues to emotion that Carbon mentioned. Ruba says she and Pollak don’t believe the inaccuracy caused by mask wearing will lead to any long-term deficits.

“While there was some loss of emotional information, kids were still able to make a reasonable guess about what the person in the photograph was expressing,” she explains. “I know parents are very worried about the effect of masks on kids being able to learn this kind of social information. But we found they are still surprisingly good at figuring out the information they need to make these judgments.”

Certainly, a University of Parma study supports this idea that some emotional information is coming through. The 96 adults, with an average age of about 36 years, were able to correctly recognize happy, angry, and neutral faces, even when they were covered by a mask or scarf. Carbon says the subtle differences seen across these studies may be due to the kinds of emotional photos experimenters used.

“We saw that people had difficulty distinguishing happy and neutral,” he says. “Emotional expressions in faces are a method of very fast communication between people. With a mask, you may need to use more words or find other ways to get your point across. It isn’t that you cannot get this information. It’s just that communication becomes less efficient.”

Filling in the Gaps

Despite that lack of efficiency, Carbon doesn’t think that social or emotional development will be derailed by increased mask-wearing. To start, people don’t need to rely solely on a static photo of a masked face to glean emotional data. Other dynamic cues—including gestures, tone, and posture, and contextual information—will help fill in the blanks.

LoBue adds that younger children, who may be in the process of learning how to read emotion in faces, can still interact with family and close friends without masks at home—and see the faces of their unmasked teachers through virtual platforms. They are not completely bereft of facial cues.

“If you worry a child is having trouble reading a masked face, you can encourage them to ask questions,” she says. “There’s no reason why we can’t prep children to raise their hand and ask for more information if they need it, whether the other person they are communicated with is masked or unmasked.”

Understanding the Trade-Offs

Despite ongoing concerns about masks and emotional learning, all of the scientists interviewed for this piece were adamant that the risks of not wearing a mask—and potentially being infected with Covid-19 and suffering from long-term health consequences as a result—far outweigh risks related to the loss of face-relayed social information.

“Faces are not the only place we get this important information,” says Carbon. “There is also information in what people say, their verbal descriptions, their tone of voice, their gestures. Even if part of this facial information is missing, we can compensate for it. It may be a little harder to do, but children are really quite adaptive. They will learn what they need to learn.”

For her part, Ruba worries more about other burdens, including the anxiety and social isolation many children may be experiencing. She argues that those issues may have more power to affect children’s cognitive and social development than a nose and mouth covering. Numerous studies suggest that the pandemic is leading to increased rates of depression and anxiety in both kids and adults, but it is hard to distinguish what aspects of pandemic life, exactly, may be influencing such trends.

“People are focused on the mask-wearing as something that will hurt kids, but what may be of more concern is that so many children are isolated from their friends or struggling with virtual school,” says Ruba. “We don’t know yet what may have long-term effects on development or mental health. These are things that we should be looking at carefully as we move forward.”

While headlines abound about all the things that children may be missing as a consequence of pandemic-related infection control practices, most of those stories are based on anecdotes and conjecture. With many scientists now having to work remotely to continue social distancing themselves, some researchers are unable to do their work outside the laboratory—and studies that examine issues as complex as the effects of virtual learning, reduced peer interaction, and the loss of loved ones to the virus on children’s emotional and social development can be challenging to pursue.

As such, Pollak argues that mask-wearing should be the least of those worries—and that, even with reduced emotional content in facial expressions, children will find a way to learn the social skills they need to learn, grow, and thrive. “The one thing we know is that kids’ brains really are resilient,” he says. “Generations from now, their grandchildren are going to ask them what it was like to live through the pandemic. They may have plenty of stories about the hardships they may have experienced, but no one’s cognitive or social development is going to be irreversibly damaged as a result of what we are going through now.”

This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of our Cerebrum magazine. Click the cover for the full e-magazine.