Thursday, April 22, 2021

To Mask Or Not To Mask

Are you ready for some science? Normally, I post about articles that are readily available. Today I am posting about an academic paper, written by Manfred Spitzer, a member of the psychiatry department at the University of Ulm, in Germany.

The title is: Masked education? The benefits and burdens of wearing face masks in schools during the current Corona pandemic. It appeared in the journal, Trends in Neuroscience and Education last September.

The topic is salient. We have discussed it in numerous different contexts. Many others have been writing about it. Spitzer addresses the role that the human face plays in communication. His report gives us a sense of what we are losing when we all mask our faces. 

I will limit my own comments, because Spitzer’s exposition is exceptionally clear and informative.

For instance, he begins by noting that recognizing faces, both as a way to identify an individual and to read emotion, is fundamentally important:

In daily life, human observers are extremely proficient in recognizing faces, discriminating between them and using them to derive a vast range of information, be it about static features like age, gender or identity, or changeable features like gaze direction, lip movements or emotional states (see second next section). 

Human beings are biologically programmed to recognize faces [68]. As soon as babies are born, they show a preference for looking at human faces above anything else, and they will even stare at a rudimentary drawing of a face if it is shown to them. But by the age of seven months babies able to recognize angry or fearful faces [62,37]. The advantage of face-processing as compared to non-face stimuli declines during the second year of life [48]. 

Many studies have shown the importance of facial recognition and have demonstrated that recognizing facial expressions is innate:

On top of this innate preference, the role of social experience in face processing and recognition becomes ever more salient, as research with infants has shown using such different measures as behavioral data, eye-tracking data, and neuroscience data mainly from event related potentials (ERP), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and near infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). 

Obviously to most of us, but the human organism is programmed to distinguish between genders and races and between family members and strangers:

By now, the role of experience in the process of perceptual narrowing in face processing has demonstrated enhanced behavioral and neural responsiveness to (1) mother over stranger, (2) female over male, (3) own-race over other-race, and (4) native over non-native faces. In addition, (5) infants' neural responses to faces in multimodal contexts, such as audiovisual speech, change during development, which finally leads to (6) the emergence of attentional biases that cause enhanced responsiveness and processing of faces commonly encountered in the native environment: We recognize and identify the faces of our peers faster than faces of strangers [67], just as we recognize the sounds (phonemes) of our mother tongue better than unfamiliar sounds (phonemes) from unfamiliar languages [61]. 

But then, what happens when we mask faces? Spitzer explains first that it impairs our ability to identify people, to know with whom we are dealing:

Hiding the lower part of the face with a face mask markedly impairs face recognition and face identification. In fact, this is why burglars and thieves wear them. As mask-wearing has become a normality in many societies, the magnitude with which covering our faces affects our social interactions and ability to recognize and identify other people becomes ever more clear. In school settings, the ability to know and recognize each other is normally taken for granted, and – like air for breathing – it does not come into focus unless it is lacking. But within seconds of absence, its importance is realized. 

Facial expression facilitates communication, even when people do not speak the same language. Spitzer continues:

When strangers meet, who speak two different languages which they do not mutually understand, they can still interpret facial expressions such as smiles and frowns with ease and thereby communicate. In fact, the most basic form of communication between humans is by facial expressions. This is because facial expressions are a simple universal language that we instinctively understand [25]. It may be for this reason, that many people do not like the wearing masks at all in the first place.

What are the detrimental consequences of wearing masks, beginning with an infant’s ability or inability to read lips:

For effective verbal communication, covering the mouth with cloth has two detrimental consequences: First, the auditory signal is impaired, as faces masks may dampen sound amplitude, and especially may absorb frequency bands used in speech. Second, the visual signal from the lips is completely obstructed. While most people may never have realized, this signal is used by human beings to aid speech understanding. From birth to about 8 months, babies look at their mother's mouth in order to parse the stream of sound into meaningful units (phonemes) in order to learn their mother tongue. In fact, if they are reared bilingually, they have to learn a larger number of phonemes and therefore start to look at their mother's mouth earlier and for longer than monolinguals [64]. When grown up, we tend to look close at the mouth of somebody under circumstances of impaired sound comprehensibility, such as noisy environments, low quality sound in movies and video calls. Deaf people use lip-reading and thereby completely rely on visual cues for understanding speech (which is why there are special face masks with a transparent piece over the mouth to meet the demand for visual speech input). 

Masking faces increases the possibility of misunderstanding, especially in schools:

Because speech transmission is impaired by mask-wearing, there is a risk of misunderstanding when face masks are used widely in schools. Speaking through a face mask may dampen higher frequencies and therefore may impair verbal communication. The size of the effect depends on the speaker, the type of mask, the listener's hearing, and background noise, and may therefore vary between negligible [54] and considerable [7]. In addition, it is well known that visual cues help in speech recognition, which may be an additional cause of face mask induced impairment of speech perception and communication. 

Of course, facial expressions also communicate emotion, a fact that, we have often noted, is lacking in people who have Botoxed their faces:

The mouth region on a face conveys information that is crucial for smiling, i.e., a positive emotion, which can work as social glue and facilitates positive social cognition and action [69]. Not seeing the bottom half of the face makes it particularly difficult to recognize a mask-wearer's positive emotions – pleasure, joy, happiness, amusement, sociability, and friendliness – as they are basically communicated by a smiling mouth. Therefore, face masks impair mainly our positive social interactions and our ability to understand, and empathize with, one another. 

In general, as face masks cover the bottom half of the face, the ability to detect positive emotions and to discriminate between emotions is considerably impaired. Movements of the lips and the display of teeth are no longer perceptible by the observer, leaving only the top half of the face for detecting the mask-wearer's emotions. 

Face masks make it more likely that people will misunderstand each other:

In a society within which the large majority of people wear masks, there is a lot of room for mutual emotional misinterpretation and therefore misunderstanding. People may feel that someone is being aggressive towards them, when there is no real intent of aggression (but in fact, a true smile), and may react accordingly – potentially leading to all sorts of difficult, and even dangerous, situations. This regards schools just as well. 

Therefore, at the very least, all school professionals should be aware of the detrimental effects of face masks on face recognition and identification, communication, and social-emotional interaction. These should be weighed against the alternatives, i.e., school closures (with the enormous burden on the children and their parents) and school re openings without masks (with their increased risk of new infections). In Germany, school authorities are rather reluctant to reopen schools after the summer break, but also face increasing criticism for not doing so. In addition, teachers’ unions point to the increased risk of elderly teachers to contract a potentially lethal disease. 

The ideas of what to do about schooling in times of a pandemic do not exist in a contextual vacuum. In fact, our dealings are far from balanced and contradiction-free: We have to make sure physical distancing in theatres but not in airplanes; we may shop with masks in supermarkets but eat without them in restaurants; we may have assemblies with friends and family but must not have seminars at the university, etc. 

At a time when more and more people are being vaccinated, the practice of masking faces is becoming unnecessarily detrimental.


Sam L. said...

I have my vaccination record, which I carry in my that I can present it with my left hand, saying "Hier ist mein papier, Herr/Frau Oberst!", and extending my right arm up at 30-45 degrees. Haven't had the opportunity to do that...yet.

Sam L. said...

I'd actually kinda like to have a mask... with fangs...dripping blood...but only to wear at Halloween...

Why yes, I don't have anything better to do right now.

Sorry for my episode of SILLY. Bye...