Mind
Masks and a meter away: what interpersonal repercussions?

Masks and a meter away: what interpersonal repercussions?

What consequences will the preventive measures adopted to contain Covid-19 have on how we will reconsider peripersonal distance, security borders and intimacy? Will there be a fallout on emotional attunement? Will it be understood that there is a smile under the mask?

 

Advertising message In the midst of the covid-19 emergency, we suffer in an absolutely personal and subjective way, in various aspects. Those who complain of compulsion, those of isolation, those of loss of control, and so on. The emotional fallout is also different. Who perceives the most anxiety, who the fear, who the sadness, etc .. One evening, during a phone call of mutual comfort, a neurologist friend of mine tells me about his Achilles heel: “If someone wanted to punish us, he found the better way forcing us to avoid physical contact ”. He suffered from the idea of ​​not being able to embrace, kiss, caress a loved one when he would see her again, maybe after months.

How not to have thought about it? It is so obvious.

Just that morning, in fact, I watched with curiosity the behavior of people lined up at the supermarket. They were all distant and in an almost funeral silence. Some people, although recognizing themselves thanks to the small parts of their faces, had greeted each other with a shy gesture, from a distance, without exchanging any words. I said to myself that caution and a distance of one meter are fine, but we can still say a little something, can’t we? I immediately thought about the consequences of all this in the future, how we will reconsider the personal distance, the security borders and, last but not least, the intimacy. We will not have to hug to keep the famous distance of one meter. We can touch each other, but we will have gloves and this will prevent us from really feeling the other’s skin. We will smile with our mouth covered by the mask. Will it be understood that there is a smile? Will the eyes be enough to be recognized?

For humans, certain implicit actions of non-verbal communication go through an automatic and very fast recognition system that allows you to understand the other’s internal state, emotions and intentions. This system includes the “mirror neurons” (Rizzolatti et al., 1996) located in the premotor areas of the cerebral cortex (but they are also present in other areas, such as in the inferior parietal cortex) that are activated when we perform an action and when we see the same action as others. This simulation process is very fast, pre-verbal, immediate and is the basis of some processes related to empathy, understanding, mirroring in the other (even learning), all elements at the basis of intersubjectivity. It is possible to recognize the emotion of others in the order of a few moments because, as well explained by Paul Ekman, the facial expressions of emotions are universal and draw, each time, a specific and harmonious configuration in which the eyes, mouth and muscles of the face participate . Indeed, Ekman has developed a coding system (Facial Action Coding System or FACS) (Ekman, 1997) that provides information on the emotions and on the internal state of the person, made up of thoughts and motivations behind the actions, with which we build ourselves. a real theory of the mind of others. All this is achievable, because the information passes from the visual system to the cortical and subcortical areas specifically assigned to emotional understanding. Studies show that when this mechanism is deficient, such as in schizophrenic, psychotic patients with severe mental illness or with autism spectrum syndromes, it is more difficult to read other people’s emotions with significant interpersonal consequences. The emotion decoding system can therefore be a poorly functional process, sometimes even structurally damaged, as in neurological patients who fail the “Reading the mind in the eyes test” (Baron-Choen et al. , 2001). But what happens when the face, or parts of it, is missing? For example, Parkinsonian patients are hypomimic because of the dopaminergic deficit: the muscles of the face are rigid and it is more difficult to guess the internal emotional states. it is more difficult to read other people’s emotions with significant interpersonal consequences. The emotion decoding system can therefore be a poorly functional process, sometimes even structurally damaged, as in neurological patients who fail the “Reading the mind in the eyes test” (Baron-Choen et al. , 2001). But what happens when the face, or parts of it, is missing? For example, Parkinsonian patients are hypomimic because of the dopaminergic deficit: the muscles of the face are rigid and it is more difficult to guess the internal emotional states. it is more difficult to read other people’s emotions with significant interpersonal consequences. The emotion decoding system can therefore be a poorly functional process, sometimes even structurally damaged, as in neurological patients who fail the “Reading the mind in the eyes test” (Baron-Choen et al. , 2001). But what happens when the face, or parts of it, is missing? For example, Parkinsonian patients are hypomimic because of the dopaminergic deficit: the muscles of the face are rigid and it is more difficult to guess the internal emotional states. as in neurological patients who fail the “Reading the mind in the eyes test” (Baron-Choen et al., 2001). But what happens when the face, or parts of it, is missing? For example, Parkinsonian patients are hypomimic because of the dopaminergic deficit: the muscles of the face are rigid and it is more difficult to guess the internal emotional states. as in neurological patients who fail the “Reading the mind in the eyes test” (Baron-Choen et al., 2001). But what happens when the face, or parts of it, is missing? For example, Parkinsonian patients are hypomimic because of the dopaminergic deficit: the muscles of the face are rigid and it is more difficult to guess the internal emotional states.

Advertising message Just this set of evidences makes me reflect and ask what will happen when we go out only and only with masks to cover the face. Will it really take longer to decode the other’s expressiveness? Will there be a fallout on emotional attunement? Half of the covered face will hinder the immediate perception of the overall elements: will it be impossible or just more difficult, vague? To recognize joy, we need to grasp the coherent expression, in which the eyes narrow and the cheekbone pushes the corners of the mouth upwards. Let’s think about fear, its strong evolutionary value. We will be able to see the raised eyebrows, the eyes wide, but not the parted mouth nor the stretched lips. And disgust, characterized by a curled nose, with the upper lip raised and the lower lip lowered, how will we find it? An expression of pain, active in the viewer, in the order of a handful of moments, a series of responses, for example caring, but only because the mouth, eyes and all the facial muscles will have harmoniously drawn the expression of pain.

Why is all this important? Because the recognition of emotions has functions, connected to their intrinsic evolutionary value, at the basis of human relationships, of attachment and sharing, of mirroring, but also of protection, care and even emotional regulation. We think of the physical closeness between those who are sad and those who want to console with a caress, the embrace between those who are happy and want to share, the push between two quarrels and all those gestures that perform a calming or activating function, full of interpersonal meanings. The peripersonal distance, which increases or decreases giving us an internal parameter of intimacy, what transformation will it undergo? This distance, supported by an understandable fear of personal and other contagion, is getting us used to conversing less, to entertain the bare minimum with others, to ask permission or apologize if we get too close by mistake. Yes, because when I saw a friend after almost two months, instinctively I was about to embrace her and yet I stopped wondering if it was the case, if she wanted. I had to ask her for permission to feel authorized to go to meet her and these internal operations have weakened that movement of initial joy, almost distorting it.

In conclusion, what will happen when we can travel again in crowded means of transport, sit next to a stranger in the villa? Work out in the gym or go to the cinema? Dancing or flirting with someone?

All these questions that rotate in our mind, have no answer! We will not know how our interpersonal structures will remain conditioned by all this until this near future has become present. I just hope that when I see the people I love I will want to hug them tightly, before I even feel I can do it. I hope that if that neurologist friend of mine is still sad, or scared, or angry or, why not, happy, I can read it on his face and I can tune in emotionally with him. And maybe yes, it will be important to be able to embrace it!