"A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse."

This old Cockney expression, first cited in 1794, means, “Do I have to spell out the obvious to you? You know what I mean.” [Lately, contracted to the Phatic, “Nar’mean?”] Well, here is my corollary: “A diss is as bad as a threat to a young man.”

Waratu Sato [& colleagues] of Kyoto University have made headlines this week with their research on 24 incarcerated juvenile delinquents, compared to 24 “control” subjects, whose average Verbal IQs were 28.4 points higher than their jailed brethren. [The Controls’ mean Verbal IQs were in the High Average range, whereas the JDs’ were in the Low Average range.] As the discussion portion of this breathlessly-hyped-in-the-media article points out, the IQ factor might account for all the difference between the two groups’ performance on the task. Meanwhile, let us consider the task, itself. Each subject was shown a series of photographs of faces “portraying” one of 6 emotions, which they had to identify correctly. [Wait. Remember the dog-bark-translator, also from Japan, which categorized canine utterances into one of 6 emotions? Hmm…] Anyway, the headline was that the 24 JDs kept “misrecognizing” facial expressions of disgust for anger. So, incidentally, did the Control subjects, but 17.2% less often [which the researchers, themselves, acknowledge is “not a large difference”]. And their conclusion? “One of the underpinnings of delinquency might be impaired recognition of emotional facial expressions, with a specific bias toward interpreting disgusted expressions as hostile angry expressions.” On the other hand, as has been empirically demonstrated for centuries, one of the underpinnings of delinquency might be lower verbal IQ. Nar’mean?

But this is not Sato & Co.’s first foray into studies involving distressingly Photo-Shopped facial expressions. As reported in NeuroImage in 2004, 5 females and 5 males [mean age 24.4 years] volunteered for a [non-diagnostic] fMRI study, comparing their amygdalar responses to facial expressions described as angry or neutral, sometimes facing head-on, and sometimes slightly averted. Guess what they found. Head-on angry faces aroused an amygdalar response [in both men & women], whereas averted angry faces did not. Nor did neutral faces, no matter which way they were pointed. And these subjects weren’t even delinquents!

Apparently, even in Japan, researchers enjoy circling the lamppost, in order to discover that which is already known. Are you tellin’ me, the culture which introduced the Western World to the notion of seppuku [aka, hara-kiri] as a rational response to “loss of face” [aka, receiving a look of disgust, or a diss] doesn’t see the nexus between disgust and anger? Well, I do, and I’m Irish. Anyone who has ever read urban anthropology [or the newspapers] is aware that most youthful violence is triggered by one party giving the other party such a look [of disrespect], that honor demands a hostile response [usually towards the dissing party, but sometimes, turned inwards towards the dissed, himself, out of unbearable humiliation]. Nar’mean?

Street savvy youth [and their elders] learn to avoid inadvertently giving such facially expressed offense by taking a leaf out of the Viennese [Dissed] Clever Dog’s book, and averting their gaze. Further, those of us using public transport in the wee hours, learn to “keep our eyes in the boat” and/or to monitor our facial subtext for inadvertent expressions of disgust, and to verbally override them, with such remarks as, “Yuck! I think I may have food poisoning! Oh, well. Worse things happen at sea, right?” The only threat such a remark poses to fellow travelers, is to their clothing, not to their self-worth. No diss, no hostilities. [Usually, not always.]

I was waiting on line at the clinic pharmacy today, where the TV had some inane talk show on, with a guest who may have been the younger brother of a Backstreet Boy; and the interviewer said to him, “What other people think of you is none of your business.” Well, the studio audience applauded. [And so would I have, except that I was at the clinic pharmacy.] What a wonderfully powerful antidote to the infuriating toxin of humiliation! If someone gives you a look of disgust, it’s none of your business. Avert your gaze and tell the wolf in your brain to pipe down, already. Nar’mean?

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Filed under confounds, murky research, power subtext, semiotics

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