As face masks become part of the new everyday reality, they're forcing a lot of changes in the ways you socialize, relax, exercise, and move around in The Outside World. For instance, they're a pain in the neck when it comes to facial recognition technology. But face masks can affect your brain in interesting ways, from changing how you view faces to the way you interact with others.
Masks help slow coronavirus infections by preventing anybody who has it — including those with no symptoms — from coughing, sneezing or otherwise spreading it through droplets in their breath. Right now, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) recommends that everybody should wear masks outside their living spaces, particularly around other people in situations where social distancing is hard (like a crowded supermarket). If masks are disposable, they need to be thrown out after one wear; if they're multi-wear, they need to be washed after every use. Face masks are undeniably good public health tools, but they can take a bit of a learning curve to get used to.
"Unlike other countries where individuals wear masks for protection or as a part of religious clothing, [people in the U.S.] have not grown accustomed to making judgments about individuals' emotions based on eye movement, cheek movement and non-facial body language," Josh Klapow Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, says. "We are now limited in the information we can take in about a person’s outward expression of their emotional state." If you're feeling more uncertain when talking to others, this may be why; your brain could be anxious about its inability to read faces, and start to think people are unfriendly when they aren't.
It's not just about our inability to see smiles or frowns. Humans often show emotions through microexpressions — tiny movements of their face that indicate thoughts — and masks make it harder to read them. The good news is that humans have also evolved to read emotions from the eyes alone. Research published in Psychological Science in 2018 found that people could accurately pinpoint a face's expression — sadness, disgust, anger, joy, fear, or surprise — from looking at just the eyes. Smizing is a real thing; Tyra Banks would be proud. Your brain is actually pretty good at reading people wearing face coverings, provided they're not also wearing sunglasses.
If you're still feeling worried or uncertain about interactions with others, Klapow suggests looking to other cues. "Rely on non-facial behaviors, in addition to tone and inflection in their voices," he says. "See if their arms are crossed, if they have a closed off stance, and if they look like they are walking away as you move closer." Body language is now more important than ever.
Your brain's reaction to face masks may also go the other way, from anxiety to release. "It’s as if when we are hiding behind our masks we let our inhibitions go," emergency doctor Dr. Janette Nesheiwat M.D. tells Bustle. A study of masks throughout history in ritual and theater published in Cogent Arts & Humanities in 2016 found that many people find masks liberating or comforting. "Our brain may think we are safe and we may relax on safety precautions," Dr. Nesheiwat says. Mask-wearers still need to wash their hands and obey social distancing rules, but as one researcher at Boston College's Morality Lab told National Geographic, masks are also a symbol of solidarity and public care, showing that you're trying to keep others safe.
"It's a new change in our lives that we are not accustomed to," says Dr. Nesheiwat — and it'll take some time to get used to it. So don't be concerned if your brain sends you worried signals while you're talking to people with face masks on — or if you feel more anxious or confused while you're wearing one yourself.
Josh Klapow Ph.D., clinical psychologist
Dr. Janette Nesheiwat M.D., emergency physician
Lee, D. H., & Anderson, A. K. (2017). Reading What the Mind Thinks From How the Eye Sees. Psychological Science, 28(4), 494–503. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797616687364
Roy, D., Strecker, Z. (ed). (2016) Masks as a method: Meyerhold to Mnouchkine, Cogent Arts & Humanities, 3:1, DOI: 10.1080/23311983.2016.1236436