When we see a new face, we make an immediate judgement about the person, sometimes without even meaning to. You can’t prevent yourself from having an instant reaction to someone, but there might be a way to control what that reaction is.
Takeo Watanabe and his team at Brown University are conducting experiments to try and manipulate the way people react to seeing certain faces. Previous neurofeedback has shown that the brain mainly controls thoughts, perception, and emotions through the cingulate cortex (Hurley, 2011). This study recorded the activity in the cingulate cortex as individuals processed the images of different faces. Computer software then organized their reactions into three separate categories. There were the faces that a participant preferred, was neutral to, and didn’t like.
With these results in mind, researchers tried to change the participant’s opinions of the different faces by exercising the cingulate cortex. 80% of the people in the study were shown a face they neither like or disliked and then shown a disk. Without telling them how to do so, researchers told the participants to enlarge the image of the disk using their mind. Half of the tests were programmed so that the disk enlarged when the individual thought the same way as they did when seeing a favorable face. The other half were programmed so that the disk enlarged when the individual thought the same way as they did when they saw a face they did not like. This process was repeated over the course of three days in an effort to mold the brain into a certain way of thinking.
The first phase of the experiment was then conducted a second time. The participants were never told what exactly caused the disk to change in size, but their perception of the same faces they were shown the first time changed regardless. The people who were shown a disk that enlarged with positive thoughts responded more positively to faces they had previously thought of as neutral. The people who were shown a disk that enlarged with negative thoughts started to dislike the faces they had previously thought of as neutral. The 20% of participants who never underwent the disk experiment stayed consistent with their reactions to the different faces (Sanders, 2016).
Although these experiments are relatively new, they are beginning to show the power of the subconscious and the ability we have to manipulate it. This provides hope for the large amounts of people struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, depression, or extreme phobias. If we can alter the way people associate with certain faces or experiences, there could be an effective way to combat several mental illnesses in the future.