March 27, 2023 - 10:00am

Are we embracing beauty treatments that make us less empathetic? The New Scientist reports that researchers conducted fMRI brain scans on people before and after receiving Botox injections, which revealed that the treatment appears to alter our ability to react to emotion in others.

Botox is a now-commonplace beauty treatment in which botulinum toxin is injected into facial muscles. Injections partially paralyse the face, reducing expressive mobility and thus the appearance of wrinkles. In the study, 10 women were shown pictures of happy and sad faces interspersed with neutral faces before and after receiving Botox injections. All showed reduced activity in response to the images, following the injections. 

This most recent study is consistent with earlier research which suggests Botox treatment is associated with reduced ability to interpret emotional stimuli and lower brain activity in response to emotional images. Scientists hypothesise that recognising and microscopically imitating others’ faces is one key mechanism by which we’re able to recognise and respond to others’ feelings — and that hampering an individual’s ability to do so by paralysing facial muscles has a corresponding effect on our capacity to identify and respond emotionally to others.

Botox has grown enormously in popularity over the last two decades, with one source estimating four to five million people a year receive the treatment, of which 94% are women. Earlier this year fashion director Anna Murphy wrote in the Times about how, in her industry, her refusal to use Botox makes her the exception, rather than the norm, with many beginning “prejuvenation” treatments in their early twenties.

What does it do to a culture when a significant subset of (nearly always) women undergo cosmetic treatments that make them measurably less empathetic? Do people just get used to elevated levels of callousness and self-absorption? It doesn’t stretch credulity very far to imagine that in fashion and entertainment, where these “tweakments” are normalised, this might be the case. (Though equally, it’s hard to be sure which way the causality runs in this instance.)

But what happens if we embrace social norms more broadly that actively militate against the normal transmission and processing of emotion? Evidence suggests that Botox isn’t the only way hampering facial mimicry can affect our ability to respond to others. A 2019 New York Times article reported, for example, on how stroke paralysis, Parkinson’s, face-hardening algae masks, hockey face guards and other impediments to facial mobility can also impede the accuracy with which we identify and mimic emotions.

Since 2019, two other recent emotion-hindering phenomena have also grown in prominence. Three years after the start of the pandemic, for example, there’s already some considerable literature on the disruptive impact of mask-wearing on children’s speech development and capacity to recognise emotions and other important social and emotional data. But the other change accelerated by the pandemic — with still more pervasive effects, and less likelihood of being reversed than masking — is the transition Covid-19 impelled to a digital-first culture. 

We’ve mostly taken the face masks off now, but remote working and other digital mediations of our social lives are here to stay. And given that paralysing our ability to mimic others’ expressions with Botox flattens or muddies emotional communication, it’s a reasonable bet that mediating it via technologies that attenuate, warp or simply conceal emotional signals is also likely to have far-reaching effects on how we interact. And, importantly, on whether we retain the ability to put ourselves in others’ shoes — something that, at scale, will have far-reaching effects on the public conversation. The ever more rancorous tone of political discourse since Covid is an ominous signal on this front.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.