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How People View Faces With a Cleft Lip and Palate

The impact of physical attractiveness on social communication is a truth universally acknowledged. It is no suprise that individuals with a cleft lip and palate have experienced social isolation and poor self-esteem. Yet, how people really see faces affected by this anomaly has not been studied. Researchers are now seeking a more scientific evaluation of how people look at faces with a cleft lip and palate through the use of an eye-tracking camera.
The Cleft Palate–Craniofacial Journal (March 2011) reports the findings of a study that analyzed eye movements while participants looked at pictures of faces with and without a unilateral cleft lip and palate. Participants included a group of 33 individuals affected by this anomaly and a control group of 30 unaffected individuals. The results show that participants who have this anomaly themselves focused on that feature for a longer period of time than those without this facial anomaly.
When looking at a face, the eyes usually fixate on the main features, following a path from one to the next in a fixed order, known as the scanpath. A typical scanpath has top-down movement, fixing primarily on the eyes, then the nose and mouth. It has been documented that viewers will fixate initially and for a longer duration on features that draw on their emotions. When looking at the pictures, the participants with and without cleft lip and palate showed a quantifiably different scanpath from one another. Those participants with this anomaly fixated on the nose significantly more often and the eyes significantly less often than those participants without cleft lip and palate. Whether looking at affected or unaffected faces, participants with cleft lip and palate displayed the same scanpath behavior. Both groups looked at pictures of faces with cleft lip and palate longer than they did unaffected faces. As adults, more than 50% of those with cleft lip and palate have reported dissatisfaction with their facial appearance. Even when surgery in infancy to repair the cleft has been performed with appropriate follow-up therapy, a scar and a distinct asymmetry of the nose remain. A stronger emotional connection with these facial features could explain why some participants had a different scanpath.


(Source: The Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Journal news release, April 19, 2011.)

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