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Crowding Body Language Fear Factor 2004-11-17

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Health, Science.

The rapid spread of fear that can cause crush injuries and serious accidents in crowds could be provoked by an innate reaction to body language, a provocative new study has found.

As many tragedies involving crowds have shown, panic and fear can grow without a majority of people knowing the real reason for the rapid build-up of emotion.

A study by Harvard University researchers into fear contagion has thrown up a fascinating insight into how individuals in crowds are sensitive to body language and how they react to it without realising the heightened state of their emotions…

Beatrice de Gelder, of Harvard Medical School, said:

‘We are extremely sensitive to emotional body language, and we react to it without us being aware of it’.

This natural ability to set our bodies to make a decision between ‘fight or flight’ is, she said,

‘very good, because that puts us in a position to act’.

Most previous studies of the human response to emotional situations have concentrated on the direct reaction to facial expressions.

Ms.de Gelder began her research after being intrigued about whether body reactions, as well as facial expressions, could communicate to other people. The startling results of her work are reported in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Ms.de Gelder and her colleagues photographed actors who posed in a variety of positions, showing happy, neutral and fearful stances.

She asked actors to perform emotion-laden activities such as being surprised at a burglar and neutral activities such as pouring water into a glass. She then took their photograph.

Their faces were blanked out and the images were shown to four men and three women, while using magnetic resonance imaging to study their brains.

People looking at the happy and neutral images showed a response in only the part of the brain that processes visual images, they found.

When looking at fearful postures, however, the viewers’ brains responded with activity in the visual, emotional and motor action areas.

The results showed the researchers that emotions are communicated non-verbally. Ms.de Gelder said:

‘It’s really communicated without any conscious processes involved. It’s really communicated from body to body’.

Dr Peter Collett, an Oxford-based body language expert, said the results of the Harvard experiments were significant because they offered scientific explanations for a phenomenon that has long been observed among large crowds. But he added:

‘It certainly adds to our knowledge, but unfortunately it just cannot follow that this information can help us make crowds safer because the sheer numbers make body language impossible to control’.

Mr.Stephen Maren, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, said it has been known that a variety of stimuli can evoke brain responses in emotional areas.

In humans that has been shown for faces, disgusting odours and verbal threats, he said, indicating that part of the brain receives information from several senses. He added that it was

‘not surprising that you would be able to demonstrate that postures of fear provoke a response’, but he added that

‘It hasn’t been shown before’.

Ms.de Gelder’s research was financed by the USA National Institutes of Health and Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

It is hoped it may help produce therapies for illnesses such as “Parkinson’s disease” where sufferers are known to have difficulty interpreting facial expression.



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