Dissociable roles of internal feelings and face recognition ability in facial expression decoding

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The problem of emotion recognition has been tackled by researchers in both affective computing and cognitive neuroscience. While affective computing relies on analyzing visual features from facial expressions, it has been proposed that humans recognize emotions by internally simulating the emotional states conveyed by others' expressions, in addition to perceptual analysis of facial features. Here we investigated whether and how our internal feelings contributed to the ability to decode facial expressions. In two independent large samples of participants, we observed that individuals who generally experienced richer internal feelings exhibited a higher ability to decode facial expressions, and the contribution of internal feelings was independent of face recognition ability. Further, using voxel-based morphometry, we found that the gray matter volume (GMV) of bilateral superior temporal sulcus (STS) and the right inferior parietal lobule was associated with facial expression decoding through the mediating effect of internal feelings, while the GMV of bilateral STS, precuneus, and the right central opercular cortex contributed to facial expression decoding through the mediating effect of face recognition ability. In addition, the clusters in bilateral STS involved in the two components were neighboring yet separate. Our results may provide clues about the mechanism by which internal feelings, in addition to face recognition ability, serve as an important instrument for humans in facial expression decoding.

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