Emotion Recognition and Abused Children/ Japan

Gee Whiz! A common sense paper… what a welcome read. 

The Relationship between Child Maltreatment and Emotion Recognition

  • Michiko Koizumi,
  • Haruto Takagishi



Our findings revealed that the accuracy of the abused children on the RMET was significant lower than the accuracy of the control group. Interestingly, this pattern was observed in only the identification of positive emotions. Furthermore, the impact of being abused on the ability to recognize positive emotion remained low after the effects of age, gender, and AQ score were removed. These results indicated that abused children were less able to recognize positive emotional expressions. Why did abused children have difficulty inferring positive emotions from facial expressions? One explanation may be that the abused children had less exposure to positive emotions from their parents than did non-abused children and may have seen their parents’ negative emotional expression more often, perhaps even excessively. Therefore, abused children could identify negative expressions as well as non-abused children, but they could not identify positive expression. Indeed, Pollak et al. [14] suggested that fewer learning opportunities might affect a neglected child’s ability to discern or discriminate others’ emotions. According to embodied cognition theory [22], people understand others’ emotion using their own sensorimotor experiences. Therefore, poor emotion recognition in abused children may stem from less experience with positive emotions.

A second possible explanation is based on the inconsistency between a parent’s facial expression and future outcomes, such as the abuse that a child is subject to in an abusive family. In interpersonal situations, adults and children anticipate future outcomes from the cues found in others’ facial expressions. If others look like happy, positive outcomes are anticipated. If others look angry, negative outcomes are anticipated. According to a classic psychological experiment, infants estimate their own safety from a parent’s facial expression [23]. Negative facial expressions, such as angry or sad, from their parents make children upset, and positive facial expressions, such as joy and happiness, put children at ease. However, parents’ positive facial expressions are not always a sign of a positive future outcome in abusive families. (And in society in general) As abusive parents sometimes harm their children while smiling, children may not associate a positive expression with a positive outcome, and they may have trouble learning to recognize positive expressions as a result. On the other hand, a strong association between negative expressions and violence has been observed in abusive families, so children may become more sensitive to negative expressions to protect themselves. Previous studies have shown that physically abused children were sensitive to angry facial expressions [24]. Thus, the deficits in social cognition observed in abused children may be the result of adaptations engendered by living in an abusive family.

Note: An open-minded person might concede that Asperger children are “abused” by parents, teachers and most members of the social environment; rejected and neglected, bullied and ostracized (often by adults who pretend to be friendly) due to our concrete interest in, and focus on, physical, rather than social, reality. Add to this, possible abuse within the family, and “mysterious” behavior is no longer mysterious.

A third possible explanation comes from cognitive neuroscience. Using MRIs, recent research has demonstrated that the experience of being abused affects some areas of a child’s brain [25], [26]. Tomoda and colleagues [25] showed that the experience of witnessing domestic violence reduced children’s gray matter volume and the thickness of the visual cortex. Other studies have found a reduction of gray matter volume in the hippocampus in adults participants who were abused by their parents in childhood [27], and in the medial orbitofrontal cortex and middle temporal cortex in abused children [28]. As the medial orbitofrontal cortex is the area of the brain that processes emotion recognition [29], [30], and a recent functional MRI study demonstrated that the orbitofrontal cortex area is activated when participants identified positive emotions on the RMET [31], the RMET performance of abused children might be affected by a deficit in the medial orbitofrontal cortex.

There are some limitations to the present study. Unfortunately, we could not obtain permission to use restricted information about the abused children (e.g., the type of child abuse, the age at which abuse occurred, the identity of the abuser, and treatment information). In Japan, it is difficult to obtain such information for use in academic research. As previous research has shown differential impacts of the type of child maltreatment on a child’s cognition and brain [26], [27], we need to examine the impact of the type of abuse and the child’s age when abused on the ability of understanding the emotions of others in Japanese children.


Further research is needed to better understand the impact of child abuse on social cognition; we should use fMRIs to examine the relationship between the reduction of gray matter volume in child’s brain or dysfunction in the area of social brain (e.g., amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, superior temporal sulcus, and other areas) and the performance on emotional recognition tasks. Longitudinal research, which could conduct fMRIs and emotion recognition tasks in the same samples repeatedly, could assess the impact of abuse on children properly. Thus, we could address the question of whether a child’s brain was damaged by being abused. By doing so, more specific therapeutic interventions can be developed to improve abused children’s interpersonal communications.


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