Sensitivity to Emotions can Change throughout Your Lifetime
Have you noticed the older people get, the less sensitive they are to social cues? Well, there’s a scientific reason for that.
A new paper, titled “Emotion Sensitivity Across the Lifespan: Mapping Clinical Risk Periods to Sensitivity to Facial Emotion Intensity,” details a groundbreaking study examining how people of all ages detect subtle changes in social cues.
To conduct this study, researchers from McLean’s Hospital created an emotional sensitivity digital test and had a sample size of 10,000 men and women, aged 10-85. The test allowed researchers to measure a person’s ability to detect subtle differences in facial cues such as fear, angerand happiness.
Lauren A. Rutter, Ph.D., lead author and a research fellow at McLean’s Hospital, explained that participants were tested using a web-based platform that showed them images of faces and asked them to decide how those faces were feeling.
“From studies and anecdotal evidence, we know that the everyday experiences of an adolescent are different from a middle-aged or older person, but we wanted to understand how these experiences might be linked with differences in basic emotion understanding,” says Laura Germine, Ph.D., who is the technical director of the McLean Institute for Technology in Psychiatry and director of the Laboratory for Brain and Cognitive Health Technology.
The study also showed the way emotional sensitivity develops during adolescence.
“We found that sensitivity to anger cues improves dramatically during early to mid-adolescence,” says Rutter. “This is the exact age when young people are most attuned to forms of social threat, such as bullying. The normal development of anger sensitivity can contribute to some of the challenges that arise during this phase of development.”
Yet, in older people, there’s a decrease to sensitivity in facial cues of fear and anger. But, the ability to detect more positive facial cues stays the same.
“What’s remarkable is that we see declines in many visual perceptual abilities as we get older, but here we did not see such declines in the perception of happiness,” says Germine. “These findings fit well with other research showing that older adults tend to have more positive emotions and a positive outlook.”
The findings of this study can now impact future studies with the same work process, and this research team is now examining how emotional sensitivity might relate to different mental health aspects like anxiety or depression.