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Botox Freezes the Empathy Muscle?

My daughter was reading The Brain–The Story of You by David Eagleman.  She told me about a little-known side effect of Botox, the Botulinum toxin derived from a bacterium.  When injected into facial muscles for cosmetic benefit, Botox paralyzes them and thereby reduces wrinkling.  A surprising side effect is it also limits the ability to read emotions in other people and feel empathy, according to results of a 2011 study conducted by David Neal and Tanya Chartrand.

Neal and Chartrand showed photos of expressive faces to Botox and non-Botox groups of participants in the study.  They asked participants from both groups to choose which of four words best described the emotion pictured.

On average, those with Botox were worse at identifying emotions in the pictures correctly.  Why?

One hypothesis suggests that the lack of feedback from their paralyzed facial muscles impaired their ability to read other people.  The less mobile faces of Botox users can make it hard to tell what they’re feeling; the surprise is that those same frozen muscles also can make it hard for them to read others.

David Eagleman suggests how to interpret this result:  My facial muscles reflect what I’m feeling and my neural machinery takes advantage of that. When you’re trying to understand what I’m feeling, you try on my facial expression.  You don’t mean to do it–it happens rapidly and unconsciously–but that automatic mirroring of my expression gives you a rapid estimate of what I’m likely to be feeling.  Eagleman says this is a powerful trick for your brain to gain a better understanding of me and make better predictions of what I’ll do.  It’s just one brain trick of many.

Eagleman explains that watching someone in pain and being in pain use the same neural machinery.  That’s the basis of empathy.  To empathize with another person is to literally feel their pain.  You run a compelling simulation of what it would be like if you were in that situation.  When you see another person suffer, you may tell yourself that it’s their issue, not yours–but neurons deep in your brain can’t tell the difference.

“Every moment in our lives, our brain circuitry decodes emotions of others based on very subtle facial cues,” says Eagleman.  When Botox freezes facial muscles, it blocks those cues so people can’t read emotions in the Botox user.  Their frozen expression actually disables their empathy muscle, disconnecting them from the ability to read people or walk a mile in their shoes.  A study placed facial electrodes on Botox users to measure any sign of connection with another person in conversation.  They found none.

Does anyone truly feel that a Botox user’s frozen expression is a sign of beauty?  A frozen expression may suite a statue, but not a living, breathing, feeling person.

Once Botox users understand how they’re sacrificing an authentic emotional connection for cosmetic benefit, will they sign up for another injection of the Botulinum toxin that freezes their facial and empathy muscles?

Or will they let their facial muscles thaw so they’re free to make social connections based on subtle facial and other sensory cues?

Let’s start a conversation.  Tell us your thoughts in the comment box below.

Best of love, success, health and happiness,


Hadley Finch

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About Hadley Finch

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