Deaf signers outperform hearing non-signers in recognizing happy facial expressions

  • Christian DobelEmail author
  • Bettina Nestler-Collatz
  • Orlando Guntinas-Lichius
  • Stefan R. Schweinberger
  • Romi Zäske
Original Article


The use of signs as a major means for communication affects other functions such as spatial processing. Intriguingly, this is true even for functions which are less obviously linked to language processing. Speakers using signs outperform non-signers in face recognition tasks, potentially as a result of a lifelong focus on the mouth region for speechreading. On this background, we hypothesized that the processing of emotional faces is altered in persons using mostly signs for communication (henceforth named deaf signers). While for the recognition of happiness the mouth region is more crucial, the eye region matters more for recognizing anger. Using morphed faces, we created facial composites in which either the upper or lower half of an emotional face was kept neutral while the other half varied in intensity of the expressed emotion, being either happy or angry. As expected, deaf signers were more accurate at recognizing happy faces than non-signers. The reverse effect was found for angry faces. These differences between groups were most pronounced for facial expressions of low intensities. We conclude that the lifelong focus on the mouth region in deaf signers leads to more sensitive processing of happy faces, especially when expressions are relatively subtle.



We want to cordially thank both the deaf and hearing participants for their willingness to take part in our study. We are grateful to Christine Wulf for technical assistance.

Author contributions

CD, RZ designed the study, analyzed the data and wrote the paper. BNK designed the study, collected and analyzed the data, SRS and OGL wrote the paper.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of OtorhinolaryngologyJena University HospitalJenaGermany
  2. 2.Department of General Psychology and Cognitive NeuroscienceFriedrich-Schiller UniversityJenaGermany

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