Surprising Findings in Concussion Studies

  • Psychology major Anna Gjertsen ’18 is specializing in behavioral neuroscience. 
    Psychology major Anna Gjertsen ’18 is specializing in behavioral neuroscience. 
September 11, 2017
In the Department of Psychology, Anna Gjertsen ’18 and professor Lauren Littlefield spent the summer studying the effects of mild traumatic brain injuries. Among them: difficulty discerning emotions in facial expressions.


“We were actually working on quite a few projects,” says Littlefield, associate professor of psychology. Four, to be exact. The pair was looking at the impact that concussions have despite the fact that people with concussions tend to be high-functioning.

“What we’ve noticed is that there are subtle deficits, both cognitive and emotional, that are residual,” Littlefield says. “We want to understand those deficits better because a lot of times people say, ‘I don’t have any problems,’ but when you look at the group data and compare people who have never had a traumatic brain injury with people who have had a traumatic brain injury, we are seeing differences.”

One of their projects, which they have submitted for publication to the Psi Chi Journal of Psychological Research, stemmed from a technique Gjertsen learned from George Spilich, the John Toll Professor of Psychology. Inspired by using the eye-gaze machine, Gjertsen proposed an independent research project to Littlefield. They worked on the project during the fall 2016 semester and continued through summer 2017.  

 “It’s looking at how mild traumatic brain injury, or concussion, affects people’s emotional facial expressions,” says Gjertsen. “We’re taking a specific aspect of a broader function—how we interact with people and how we assess what’s going on in a social situation—and trying to see if there are differences in the underlying way people behave after having a concussion.”

 Using the eye-gaze machine to track eye movements of participants, they analyzed and compared the data of those who have had concussions versus those who have not.

What they found was, quite literally, surprising.

When looking at the image of a surprised face, those with a history of mild traumatic brain injury tended to visually analyze the image differently than control participants. Gjertsen and Littlefield realized that people have to appropriately divide their attention between gazing at the eye region and the mouth region of a surprised face, which is very different from looking at a happy face and only needing to pay attention to the mouth. After discovering this, “we looked into surprise more and found that it’s actually a very complex emotion. That fits nicely into the idea that more cognitively-based and complex tasks are what we’re seeing differences in between people who have had concussions and who haven’t,” says Gjertsen.

The past literature, Littlefield adds, has shown that people with moderate to severe brain injuries have universal trouble detecting and understanding emotions but, she says, “there is no literature that we could find that definitively states that people with mild traumatic brain injury might have trouble with detecting and understanding facial expressions. What we found was that they didn’t have any trouble identifying any emotion they were seeing, but the fundamental process of how they orient their visual attention when viewing surprised expressions is characteristically different.” Littlefield concludes that, as a result of this difference in visual attention, some people with mild traumatic brain injuries “could find themselves confused during the ongoing, dynamic, everyday process of interpreting facial expressions.”

For Gjertsen, it’s exciting to see the project evolve while also engaging with other related research studies.

“It’s been really cool to move from just running subjects to really crafting the ideas and creating something and turning it into a meaningful whole,” she says.

Their work was supported by the John Toll Science and Mathematics Fellows Program, which funds student/faculty collaborative research projects over the summer.


Last modified on Sep. 12th, 2017 at 9:44am by Marcia Landskroener.