“A Botox Gap in Understanding Emotion”
by Siri Carpenter
The Los Angeles Times, May 31, 2010
[Carpenter notes: I first sold this story to the New York Times after learning about the research at a psychology conference. I had finished the story and it had been accepted (I believe), but then was killed because a NYT staffer turned out to be writing a story on a subject that was too closely related for the paper’s comfort. The editor gave me the option of either taking a 50% kill fee or leaving the story for them, with the possibility that the staffer might use it in shortened form as a sidebar for his story. I decided to take the kill fee and try to re-sell the story. I then pitched it to Tami Dennis, who was then an LA Times health editor. A week or so later, I hadn’t heard back from Tami so I phoned her to check up on my pitch. It turned out that although the pitch was in her inbox, it had escaped her notice. She skimmed it while I was on the phone with her; gave me a “maybe,” and then emailed me about half an hour later to assign the story.]
Dear Ms. Dennis,
I’d like to propose the following story for the LA Times, and my friend [redacted] tells me you’re the right person to pitch.
In freezing facial muscles, Botox blunts emotional language processing
A person’s ability to make sense of emotion-laden language depends on the face’s ability to simulate the facial expressions such messages provoke, new research suggests. A study of women undergoing cosmetic treatment with botulinum toxin, or Botox, shows that the treatment, which works by blocking facial nerve impulses, slows people’s ability to comprehend emotional language.
The study adds to a growing body of research indicating that facial and other bodily movements not only express our ups and downs, but also provide crucial feedback to the brain, helping shape our thoughts and feelings. “We know that language moves us emotionally,” says the study’s first author, David Havas, a psychology graduate student at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. “What this study shows is that that’s partly because it moves us physically.”
In their study, to be published in the journal Psychological Science, Havas and colleagues asked women waiting to receive first-time Botox injections for frown lines – a treatment that temporarily paralyzes the muscle responsible for frowning, known as the corrugator supercilli — to read a series of sentences on a computer, pressing a key when they understood each sentence. The women repeated the test, using a fresh set of sentences, two weeks later, when the Botox had taken full effect. Results showed that after Botox treatment, the women were slower to understand sentences conveying sadness or anger — such as “You hold back your tears as you enter the funeral home” or “Reeling from the fight with that stubborn bigot, you slam the car door” – than they had been before treatment. There was no such change in reading happy sentences.
It might be tempting to conclude that getting Botox could help blot out unhappiness. But Dr. Paula Niedenthal, a psychologist at Blaise Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand, France, who studies the role of the body in emotion, cautions that the opposite is probably true. “This is a useful demonstration of the dangers of inhibiting emotional responding,” she says. “Effective social responsiveness involves very fine understanding of cues to all emotions.”
In the new study, Botox-induced paralysis only slowed down participants’ response to angry and sad sentences by about a tenth of a second, on average. But such effects can snowball. “Language is highly interactive, and we’re very, very sensitive to all kinds of cues that happen on the order of milliseconds,” says Arizona State University psychologist Dr. Arthur Glenberg, one of the study’s authors.
Timing is crucial, for example, in the ritual of taking turns during conversation. Imagine a marital disagreement where your spouse is repeatedly just a tenth of a second too slow in responding, leaving the mounting impression of disinterest or failure to comprehend. If such delays were chronic, Glenberg says, “That’s enough time for a person to get really pissed off.”
Please let me know if you’re interested in this story. I’m happy to provide more details if you’d like. I am an experienced science journalist and, as a social psychologist by training (I earned my Ph.D. from Yale University in 2000), I specialize in writing about behavioral science. I have written for the New York Times, Prevention, Science, Science Careers, Scientific American
Mind, Science News, and many others. My article Is Your Parent Over-Medicated? (Prevention, December 2008) was a finalist for the 2009 National Magazine Award. My article Buried Prejudice (Scientific American Mind, April/May 2008) won the 2009 Outstanding Article Award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I’m happy to provide you with further writing samples, if you like, or you can visit my website, http://www.siricarpenter.com.
Thanks for considering this pitch. I look forward to hearing from you. Best regards,