See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 1

Subtle Multisensory Clues Reveal Other People's Emotions

Good social skills depend on picking up on other people's moods--a feat the brain performs by combining numerous sensory clues

Hugh Kretschmer/Getty Images

When someone approaches you to ask, “What’s wrong?” you know that you are broadcasting unhappiness, whether or not you said a word. Perhaps it was a grimace or your sluggish gait that conveyed the message. You cannot help but communicate your mood to colleagues, neighbors and fellow commuters through numerous subtle cues.

Sensing the emotional states of others is an important part of social interaction. If you could not do this well, you might end up incongruously slapping the back of a person who is teary or stopping an anxious co-worker on his way to a meeting. People with autism and schizophrenia find it virtually impossible to detect other people’s feelings and as a result have extreme difficulty relating to others.

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