Keeping Calm And Carrying On

Keeping calm and carrying on is quite difficult to do when startled in unfamiliar surroundings and even more difficult if the surroundings are unpleasant. A familiar face is reputed to be reassuring and will make us feel better.

Just how much does the face effect us when startled, and does it depend on the relationship, for example, how much difference does looking at a sibling effect our startle response when compared to when we are gazing at a lover? Guerra et al set about trying to measure the effects (1). They set about scaring the pants off 54 undergrads (just under half were men) with a sudden loud blast of white noise while they were relaxing and looking at portraits flashing up on a screen.

The degree of startle was measured by the eye-blink response. They also measured the extent of emotional arousal by measurement of heart rate, skin conductance, muscle signals from around the eyes and the mouth – you smile if you like the picture and you like pictures of your lover more than of some stranger, which is even better than a picture of a mutilated face.

So what were the conclusions after the sudden bursts of noisy excitement? Firstly, get a loud shock when looking at a familiar face resulted in a markedly reduced startle response compared to when the students were looking at neutral pictures of unknowns. Secondly when they were looking at mutilated faces, the sudden loud noise produced a much stronger startled response.

Positive emotional arousal (smiles and the heart beating faster), surprise, surprise, perked up with familiar faces, especially lovers pictures. Men were a bit more chilled out than the women though – it’s just a guy thing.

The conclusion is that we are more relaxed and less easily scared when friendly faces surround us. The authors expect that our neurophysiological responses will lead to better health outcomes if we have our friends and lovers around us to look at. I guess it’s good to see some measurements to back up our instincts. Now how about the same experiment while we’re checking out our Facebook friends?

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