June 18, 2002

Physically Abused Children Recognize the Face of Anger


Physical abuse in childhood is associated with a wide variety of problems in later life -- a fact documented by decades of research.

Abused children are more likely as adults to suffer from depression, to abuse alcohol or drugs, to commit crimes and to develop chronic health problems, among other things.

But a new study offers a clue to how an experience early in childhood may exert such a powerful and long-lasting influence. Repeatedly exposed to the rage of unpredictable adults, abused children appear to develop an exquisite sensitivity to the emotional signals of anger, the study finds.

Shown computerized images of a face morphing gradually from sadness or fear to anger, the children who had been abused detected the angry facial expression far more quickly than did other children.

The abused children ''saw anger in faces that maybe only had 30 or 40 percent of anger mixed into them,'' said Dr. Seth Pollak, an assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin and the lead author of the study, to be published today in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Being attuned to the emotions of others is a way to adapt to the dangerous environment of an abused child's home, Dr. Pollak said, adding that in such a situation ''these kids' brains are doing exactly what you would want your brain to do.''

But when the children move on to other settings, where the people around them behave more rationally, their perceptual systems fail to make the shift. Instead, Dr. Pollak said, they may see anger when it is not there, or spend so much time scanning for the signs of impending rage that they miss other important social clues.

''This could be a reason why these children end up developing interpersonal difficulties,'' he added.

The study's findings may also contribute to the understanding of the basic science of emotions. By revealing a difference between normal children and children who have grown up under extreme conditions, the research suggests that in some cases emotions may be learned after birth, rather than being hard-wired into the brain, as many theorists have held.

''It appears that although human infants may enter the world with perceptual capacities that allow them to conduct a preliminary analysis of their environments,'' the researchers wrote, ''they need to adjust or tune these mechanisms to process specific aspects of their environment.''

Of the 40 9-year-olds who participated in the study, 23 had been physically abused and were recruited by the researchers from a state psychiatric program and a social welfare agency. The other children were recruited for the study from an after-school program.

The children were asked to sit at a computer and play a game that involved discriminating between different pairs of faces. They were shown a series of faces morphing from one emotion to another, from happy to sad, for example, or from fearful to angry. A computer program allowed the researchers to measure how much of each emotion was contained in each facial expression.

When asked to discriminate among happy, sad and fearful faces, the abused children responded exactly as the children who had not been abused. But when the task involved detecting shifts to an angry expression, the abused children identified the face as angry earlier in the transformation process.

Dr. Pollak said the study's findings raised the question of whether, once such perceptual patterns were in place, the brain could be retrained to respond differently.

''That's something we don't know yet,'' he said. ''Are these children somehow fixed to do this? Is this flexible?''

With the right therapy, Dr. Pollak noted, it may be possible to modify the tendency of abuse survivors to overinterpret anger.

''Maybe these people will always have some perceptual different,'' he said, ''but maybe we can teach them to accommodate that. If I had to guess, I do think this is the kind of thing where we could effect change.''

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