Not "just" an expression

The first time we took our daughter Alice outside as an infant, she looked distinctly worried. “What the heck is this giant bright windy place?” she seemed to thinking. “Life is just one darn thing after another.” But how, at her age, had she learned what a “worried face” looks like?

Charles Darwin argued in his 1872 book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals that non-verbal communication (“body language” as well as facial expressions) is innate: inherited, not learned. Darwin felt that this showed that all humans had a common progenitor, and that since animals also expressed emotion in similar ways, were part of a continuum that included animals–not, in other words, a special creation.

Yet despite Darwin’s work, supported by anecdotal evidence from around the world, when a young anthropologist named Paul Ekman went to see the famed Margaret Mead in the 1960s and suggested he could travel around the world to see whether people from all cultures agreed on the meaning of facial expressions, she looked at him, he told one interviewer, “as if I were crazy.”

Despite her skepticism, Ekman made his travels, showing photographs of men and women making a variety of distinctive faces to people from many different cultures. Everywhere he went, everybody agreed on what the expressions meant. Just to be sure they weren’t simply reacting to cues they’d picked up from watching the same movies and TV, he went into the most remote villages in Papua New Guinea–and found they had no trouble interpreting the expressions, either.

Interestingly, just this week scientist at the University of Haifa reported research that further supports the idea that facial expression is inherited, rather than learned.

The researchers recruited 21 people who were born blind, and 30 of their relatives. The subjects were asked to recount happy, sad and aggravating life experiences, given puzzles to concentrate on, told a gory story and asked an unexpected question in gibberish while their faces were videotaped. Individual changes as each subject felt various emotions were then analyzed by a computer.

The Israeli scientists found that the blind participants were significantly more likely to make angry, sad and pensive expressions that resembled those of their relatives than they were to make expressions that resembled those of strangers. And since they’d been blind since birth, they couldn’t have learned those expressions from their relatives. Presumably their inherited facial characteristics made them more likely to have expressions that looked like their relatives’.

Interestingly, though, the researchers found that for joy, surprise and disgust the resemblance to relatives wasn’t significant. Perhaps these expressions that are more universally similar and therefore not as prone to genetic variation.

After his initial research, Paul Ekman and collaborator Wallace Friesen studied the anatomy of the face to determine just how many possible movements the facial muscles can make. They found 43. Next they started cataloguing the possible combinations, identifying 300 possible combinations of two muscles, more than 4,000 of three muscles, and more than 10,000 of five muscles.

Most of those combinations don’t mean anything, but they identified about 3,000 meaningful expressions, which they assembled (along with the rules for reading and interpreting them) into something called the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS. It fills a 500-page binder, and it has been invaluable to everyone from researchers in schizophrenia and heart disease to computer animators at Pixar and DreamWorks who want their computer-simulated characters to show believable emotion.

Professional “face readers” who have learned FACS have an almost spooky ability to tell what people are really feeling, or what their true personalities are, just by looking at their faces. Most of us aren’t that great at reading faces because we put more weight on someone’s words or tone of voice than on the subtle variations of their expression. But it’s much more difficult to lie with your face, with its hardwired expressions, than with words.

Although you can believe my words. Just look at my photo.

Would someone with a face like that lie to you?

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