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Face to face

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Thinking of Botox? Please think again. Especially if you are a new Mum, Dad, grandparent or nanny.

Baby's intelligence - emotional and intellectual - develops through reading faces. Faces that move. Faces that frown. Faces that smile. Faces in which noses crinkle up. Faces where eyes follow hands. Faces where a question can be read. Where joy can be reflected. Where sadness can be seen.

For a baby to feel secure and absorb the facial expressions that are a mirror to emotional life, she or he needs mobile faces that show and reflect different feelings and different energies to play with. There is concern among infant researchers who look at how babies develop, that Botox, when injected around the brows and near the eyes in order to give a youthful lift, blocks the capacity of the adult to convey the subtlety of their feelings. But more than that, if the mother cannot show curiosity and interest on her face as she looks and plays with baby, then there is a blank where the baby should be taking in the feel and excitement of curiosity and interest itself.

We've known for a while that Botox and cosmetic procedures have their serious downsides. Some film directors have talked - off the record of course - about how the ubiquity of plastic surgery and Botox makes difficult work of trying to get those vital close ups in which the magnified face of the actor or actress, displays the delicacy of the emotions.

Of course, airbrushing and digitalising is so commonplace now that we assume that a fixed and 'perfected' face is better than the life worn version. Indeed we do it even before the face has become 'life worn'. We insert gaps in the teeth of toddlers, pretty up school photos, buy cameras with built in correctors so that by the time youngsters become teens they are planning for their first medical interventions. It is made to seem, oh so normal and oh so stress free and oh so necessary. But it isn't.

One procedure begets another and as Sarah Burge, the self-styled advertisement for the cosmetic surgery said in the Guardian recently "when you see the benefits of one surgical procedure you think, what can I have done next? I'm a bit like the Forth Bridge and I'm the first to admit it, you get to the bottom and start at the top again."

But back to babies. And mothers with faces that are partially paralyzed by Botox. There is concern that the crucial face to face contact between mothers and babies that is the foundation for learning and emotional safety in babies, could be de-railed. Neuroscientists have been studying the mirror neurone system; a group of cells that allow us to mimic the movements of others. The classic finding showed a monkey watching a scientist eating a peanut. The way in which the mirror neuron cells are activated, it is as if the monkey itself were eating the peanut. Before we have made a move ourselves, we are already absorbing the movement of the other. It imprints on us. It can be thought of as a kind of preparation as well as a communication. We look and via our mind's eye - the mirror neurone system - we embody the movement and the emotions that accompany it.

In a heartbreaking video, Dr Edward Tronick, Director of the Child Development Unit at Harvard, shows what happens when a mother presents a motionless face to her baby. The baby tries to engage the mother to relate to her. She smiles, she points, she puts her hands up to Mum and when she fails to get a response she screeches and shows a sadness that is almost unbearable to watch. In the course of less than a minute the baby goes from being happy to disconsolate. This mother, who put on her still face for the baby was able to help her recover when she started to move it again. But what happens when a mother's face has restricted movement caused by Botox? Shouldn't we be wary?

In a recently published study by Professors David T. Neal and Tanya L. Chartrand looking at facial feedback and motion, they found the surprising result that women with Botox were significantly less capable of decoding positive or negative emotions than those using a face filler or living with their wrinkles. Another experiment asked participants to put a facial mask type gel on their faces. In order to convey what they were feeling through the mask, they had to exaggerate their emotions. Curiously, in doing so, they could more accurately translate the emotions of others.

So what can we conclude? The mobile face is a must for understanding and communicating emotions; it is a must feeling oneself; it is important in the movies, it's important between adults and crucially it's important between infants and parents.