Efficient recognition of facial expressions does not require motor simulation

  1. Gilles Vannuscorps  Is a corresponding author
  2. Michael Andres
  3. Alfonso Caramazza
  1. Université catholique de Louvain, Belgium
  2. Harvard University, United States


What mechanisms underlie facial expression recognition? A popular hypothesis holds that efficient facial expression recognition cannot be achieved by visual analysis alone but additionally requires a mechanism of motor simulation — an unconscious, covert imitation of the observed facial postures and movements. Here, we first discuss why this hypothesis does not necessarily follow from extant empirical evidence. Next, we report experimental evidence against the central premise of this view: we demonstrate that individuals can achieve normotypical efficient facial expression recognition despite a congenital absence of relevant facial motor representations and, therefore, unaided by motor simulation. This underscores the need to reconsider the role of motor simulation in facial expression recognition.

Data availability

Data and stimulus materials are publicly available and can be accessed on the Open Science Framework platform (https://osf.io/8t4fv/?view_only=85c15cafe5d94bb6a5cff2f09a6ef56d)

The following data sets were generated

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Gilles Vannuscorps

    Psychological Sciences Research Institute, Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0001-5686-7349
  2. Michael Andres

    Psychological Sciences Research Institute, Université catholique de Louvain, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
  3. Alfonso Caramazza

    Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, United States
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.


Harvard University's Mind, Brain and Behavior Interfaculty Initiative

  • Alfonso Caramazza

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: The study was approved by the local Ethical committee at UCLouvain (Registration # B403201629166). Written informed consents were obtained from all participants prior to the study, and after the nature and possible consequences of the studies were explained.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Richard B Ivry, University of California, Berkeley, United States

Publication history

  1. Received: December 22, 2019
  2. Accepted: May 3, 2020
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: May 4, 2020 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: May 12, 2020 (version 2)


© 2020, Vannuscorps et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Gilles Vannuscorps
  2. Michael Andres
  3. Alfonso Caramazza
Efficient recognition of facial expressions does not require motor simulation
eLife 9:e54687.
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