UnMask: How Your Face Signals Safety or Threat

By Joy A. Dryer, Ph.D.*

I. INTRO. Riding home on the NYC subway on Halloween night, I saw partygoers dressed as Little Bo Peep….a Jolly Green Giant… a vicious looking monster (also green)… a bumble bee… Dracula with “blood” dripping off his front fangs…

My guess is that Halloween has persisted through the centuries as a popular holiday because is offers kids and adults alike the opportunity to dress up as someone else. They can hide their true identities and feelings behind a mask. And they can then act and feel like someone different from their usual “self”. Specifically, they can act and look scary simply by covering their face with a mask. Often scary ones. That’s true. But simply covering facial cues is scary enough. Since these cues are how we connect with another.

The Halloween holiday gives us a fine opportunity to look at our reactions when our facial cues are covered with a mask. The use of masks can be traced to 2,ooo BC, to the Celts’ celebration of “Samhain.” also known as “All-hallow’s Eve, the eve of the New Year which started on November 1st. Samhain marked the end of summer and the planting season, and heralded in the cold and dark of winter. They believed there was little boundary between this world and the next. To scare away evil spirits which would rise from the dead and wreck havoc on the living, the Celts wore costumes and scary masks to trick these spirits from knowing their true identities.

Concealing true identities was also the reason masquerade balls were popular with the upper classes during the Italian renaissance. They could partake in activities on which their society usually frowned. In contrast to the Celts’ demonic and ghoulish masks, the Italians wore lavish clothes with extravagant and gorgeous masks, some sporting jewels and gold.

Masks served a different purpose in the classical form of Japanese musical drama called Noh ( ), or Nōgaku (能楽)—performed since the 14th century. As you can see from the masks in this picture, the Noh actors made absolutely certain that the audience knew which emotions they wanted to convey…..often one of the 6 universal, scientifically validated, emotions of joy sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, and fear. Research has found that the facial muscles make the exact configurations across cultures and continents to convey these 6 universal emotions.

Reading the emotions on your partner’s face is the best way to connect with him or her. Such a face to face bio-psycho-physical approach allows you to know and be known by your partner. Current neuroscience research describes how our “feeling” mid-brain reads cues of safety or threat before our “thinking” cortex processes the information.

II. The NEUROSCIENCE Beneath the Mask. Current neuroscience understands how these facial muscles unmask our true identities. The obiculorus oculi, the muscles around the eye, signal safety or threat. Mammals and humans scan the face of an approaching “other” and within a “blink” decide if s/he is Friend or Foe. So you can tell if your special love is engaged with you by looking for muscle tone in her face, especially around her eyes [e.g. crows feet at the corner or each eye reveals unmitigated joy].

An increasing number of neuroscientists describe how to “know” another by carefully looking beyond the “mask”. The Attachment & Trauma Conference:: The Neurobiology of Healing took place in NYC two weeks before Halloween on Oct 20-2. I’d like to tell you about the research of one of the well-known presenters, Dr. Stephen Porges.

Baby mammals physically and emotionally bond with their mothers to be protected from predators, and to learn to find food. Thus, for survival, connectedness is a biological imperative. The body needs to co-regulate its biobehavioral state through engagement with others. Dr. Porges calls this the Social Engagement System [SES]. It starts with face to face interaction involving expressions, gestures, and prosodic vocalizations. [Prosody is the collective term used to describe variations in pitch, loudness, tempo, and rhythm. These features are all involved in intonation, stress, and rhythm.]

The face-heart connection is a critical component of this social engagement system. At birth mammals have bidirectional neural communication between the face and the heart [suck-swallow-breathe-vocalize] which forms the core of the social engagement system. The vagus nerve connects a series of pathways from head, to our limbs, to our gut. The “polyvagal” nerve branches are part of a neural network that detects safety or threat via “neuroception”, what Porges calls “our own personal TSA system” (like the canary in the mine shaft, the first to detect danger). Our midbrain detects relaxed face muscles with friendly eyes, and within milleseconds decides Friend [safe] or Foe [threat].

It’s essential that we feel SAFE in our interactions with another person, especially with our love partner, and in our environment. Physical contact without fear is also crucial. Porges noted at the conference that “this state of safety: a) Maintains a physiological state that supports health, growth, & restoration; b) Optimizes the ability to rest, relax, sleep, digest, and perform bodily processes; c) This enables feelings of trust, safety, and love.

Many folks live with a partner, or in an environment where they do not feel safe, or at least not fully safe. If you’ve been hurt, you understandably conclude that if you do not interact, you are less likely to be hurt again. You’ll keep a vigilant eye out for any person or moment between you and another that feels threatening. For example, our body’s neuroception of any of the following subtle cues could signal “threat” to our Social Engagement System: a) Lack of prosody [patterns of rhythm in sound, patterns of stress & intonation in language] ; b) Poor eye contact and difficulty in social communication; c) Blunted facial expressivity.

If we detect danger, defenses get enacted in the neural networks of our bodies with a response of fight or flight. In the extreme, as when an animal is about to be eaten, or sexual abuse is happening, our bodies can actually freeze, and shut down. Thus, Porges defines “trauma” as when connection chronically disrupts that necessary co-regulation, which in turn can trigger biologic states of defense.

III. In summary, Porges’ Poyvagal Theory provides a theoretical lens to study the neuroscience of safety and responses to threat. If we wish to have a secure and loving relationship with our special love, we need to learn to increase connection by giving cues of safety, not of threat.

Love involves desire to know the other, and our wish and ability to reveal our true identities, to risk being known, and not to wear any mask that will obscure the face of our real selves. We signal safety to loved ones with relaxed muscle tone in our face, especially via the obiculorus oculi muscles around the eye. Love is in our eyes. Literally.

*JOY A. DRYER, Ph.D. , a Psychologist/ Psychoanalyst, and Divorce Consultant/ Mediator, is currently in private practice in NYC and Poughkeepsie N.Y. She is an author, speaker, divorce trainer, and former Adjunct Associate Professor [Brooklyn College, New York University ]. Follow her on Twitter @JoyDryerPhD. Comments welcome via jdryerphd@gmail.com or website www.joydryerphd.com.

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