Recognising emotions after brain injury: re-learning a critical social skill

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by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D

For most of us, interpreting and expressing emotion is something deeply instinctive. But what happens when that ability to express ourselves or read another’s emotions goes awry? Imagine what can happen to a student’s classroom experience if they can’t make sense of something as simple as their teacher’s facial expression. In the past, these kinds of students have been seen as having behavior problems. So how can we help them succeed?

Research has shown that people with traumatic brain injuries often experience this same inability to interpret and respond to emotions, a condition called “affect recognition.”

Barry Willer, professor of psychiatry and specialist in TBI (traumatic brain injury) of the University of Buffalo, tells the story of a man and his wife who came into his office with a problem. The woman had experienced a mild traumatic brain injury. While her husband was supporting her recovery as best he could, she consistently described his attitude as “indifferent. ” He was frustrated, to say the least.

“His wife didn’t know she wasn’t recognizing his emotions,” said Willer, recounting the story in a 2009 interview with Insciences Journal , “and he had no idea what was going on.”

This couple is by no means alone. Nearly fifty percent of all traumatic brain injuries result in problems interpreting and expressing emotion.

As educators, being able to connect with our students at an emotional level is essential to classroom success. Without that connection, the learning process can quite easily come to a halt. Thankfully, Willer has demonstrated that there is hope for this population, and that the human brain is quite capable of re-learning how to understand facial expressions and use that information to interpret emotion.

Willer and his team have developed two specific interventions that have shown positive results:

  • Facial Affect Recognition (FAR): Individuals view faces on a computer screen that directs them to concentrate on specific elements of each face. “Look at the eyes. What are the eyes doing? What is the mouth doing?” and asks them to name the emotion.
  • Stories of Emotional Inference (SEI): Participants are asked to read stories that describe events, along with character’s beliefs, wants and behaviors. From this information, participants are asked to infer the character’s emotions.

“What was so exciting about our preliminary study,” says Willer, “is that someone may lose the ability to recognize emotions, but even 10 years later, they can re?learn the skill if given the right assistance.”

As it turns out, the only emotion that traumatic brain injuries do not erase is “happy,” which is very hard?wired and has an extensive amount of “redundant circuitry.” Says Willer, “I don’t know how that happened, but we all can be glad it did.”

For further reading: Milders, M., Fuchs, S., & Crawford, J. R. Neuropsychological impairments and changes in emotional and social behaviour following severe traumatic brain injury. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 25, 2003. 157-172.

Related Reading:

Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain

5 Paths to Brain Health: Tips From Dr. Paul Nussbaum