We have written a great deal about recognizing basic emotions, but what about pain?
Certainly, pain has many similarities with other basic emotions, given its deep evolutionary basis and the universal nature of the pain experience. However, further attention must be paid to how we recognize expressions of pain as opposed to those of other emotions. The ability to recognize when people are in pain is incredibly important in many contexts, and Humintell would like to focus attention on this field as part of September’s Pain Awareness Month.
In a 2017 study, Dr. Daniela Simon of Humboldt University of Berlin and a team of Canadian and British researchers sought to better understand pain recognition by exposing participants to a series of film clips of faces demonstrating either pain or basic emotions. Participants were asked to evaluate these clips and report what emotion was being displayed, in an effort to see if pain is consistently distinguished from other emotions.
Theoretically, Dr. Simon and her team’s research was grounded in the evolutionary history of facial expressions, seeing painful expressions as an effort to communicate pain to onlookers, either to warn them or to ask for help. This fits with our previous blogs on research connecting basic emotions and their related expressions to evolutionary purposes.
Moreover, research in neurobiology has found that pain and its expression is a distinctive and specific neurological event. They contend that both the evolutionary and neurological background of pain fail to give a full picture without exploring how pain is recognized by onlookers.
In order to assess this experimentally, actors were hired to simulate basic emotions and pain expressions, with the resulting videos compared by the researchers to accepted images of the expressions in question. This helped ensure accuracy while also using a dynamic video as opposed to a static photograph.
Participants were asked not only to identify the expression displayed but also to rate the intensity of the emotion and how relaxed or comfortable the displayed person was. This helped delve further than just identifying emotions but also explored interplay between them, such as whether fear and pain tend to coincide, for instance.
Overall, participants regularly distinguished between basic emotions and pain. There was some overlap, such as between fear and pain and between fear and surprise. Moreover, many pain expressions showed disgust, or even surprise, to varying extents. Finally, participants tended to accurately identify pleasant emotions, such as happiness, and unpleasant expressions, such as pain, anger, or fear.
Not only was this study able to make strides in better understanding the recognition of pain, as contrasted to basic emotions, but it helped further develop a prototypical measurement of the pain expression, which is invaluable for further research on recognizing pain.
While understanding how to read people’s emotions is critical, understanding when people are in pain is also a helpful way of communicating with them, both in professional and perhaps especially in personal contexts.