“It was an insane world, till I saw your face.” – Anonymous
Of all the things that inspire us, guide us and give us strength, nothing is more important than the face of a loved one. A gentle smile, a timely laugh, a grimace or even an astonished look, they never fail to inspire us in return, or reciprocate a feeling of anger, even make us break into a laughter or make us sad. Call it science or philosophy, the pursuit of understanding facial expressions is an absorbing one and one that can improve our innate ability to better understand the people we interact with in our daily life.
There is a reason why it is said that a face is a mirror of the mind. You express through your face, what you feel inside you. Naturally, studying someone’s face is the best way to understand what he / she might be going through. For years psychologists have been using methods to read what a face says, without the lips ever needing to move. But you don’t need to pursue a career in human lie detection, as you can learn in this course, to reap the benefits of facial expression recognition.
The Study of Facial Expressions – A Brief History
The study of facial expressions came directly from the human pursuit to understand emotions. Charles Darwin was the first to suggest that human emotions are universal and they formed one of the fundamental aspects on which he based his theory of evolution, as expressed in his work ‘On the Origin of Species’.
Initially, researchers believed that human emotions and their facial expressions are culturally dependent. This was not what Darwin had suggested and his claims could not be established through initial researches either. It was not until concerted efforts from Tomkins, Paul Ekman and Carroll Izard that it was established that facial expressions were largely uniform across cultures and are interpreted more or less the same way across the globe. This theory was further consolidated by the researches of Friesen who claimed that when shown the same film, members of different cultures across the globe elicited almost the exact same emotional expressions on their faces.
There’s More Beyond the Basic Six Expressions
For long facial researchers had believed that humans can only make about six types of expressions. These would be your basic happy, sad, disgust, anger, surprise and fear faces. As a resultant, most studies would document only about a half a dozen facial expressions. But that can’t be true? Can it? You can be happy and surprised at the same time, or just as well be happy and angered concurrently. Emotions can be conflicting and just as well be fluctuating. E.g., hold that expression on your face when you see your toddler writing her first letters on the newly painted living room wall. Run for the bedroom mirror and look at your face. Is that happy? Or is that anger? Or is that a combination of both emotions?
Researchers have now realized that human emotions are much too complicated than the earlier notion of six basic emotions and six types of faces that they had initially established. They have realized that in certain instances it is a compound of two or more emotions. Though the exact number if facial expressions could vary from one study to the other, researchers have, on an average, pointed out 20 different ones. Thus you are likely to show a range of facial expressions, unless of course you are Tommy Lee Jones (obviously referring to the scene in the movie Man of the House, where the character of Tommy Lee Jones says to the character of Paget Brewster, “this is my happy face” with no discernable change in the contours of his face).
So, Any Ways, What are the Common Facial Expressions?
Very quickly, here they are: angry and disgusted, disgusted and surprised, angry and surprised, hatred, fearful and surprised, fearful and angry, sad and disgusted, sad and fearful, surprised and sad, disgusted and fearful, awed, surprised and happy, happy and disgusted, sad, fearful, angry and sad, disgusted, happy, angry and lastly surprised.
During their research analysts discovered that these 20 different emotions reflected by 20 different facial expressions would be expressed by an individual by the use of one or more of the muscles that are involved in the basic six expressions. In other words, while a person who is sad would be moving one set of muscles, a person who is angry would be moving another set (basic facial expressions). But a person who is angry and sad at the same time would be moving both sets of muscles to form that compound facial expression.
The basic six facial expressions are like building blocks and the rest of the expressions are made-up using any of these building blocks as the human being concerned goes through a set of compounding emotions. Interesting isn’t? Try standing in front a mirror and make your sad face. Next make your angry face. And lastly make the face you normally would do when you see your teenage daughter coming home beyond the curfew limit.
What are Microexpressions?
There is a subtle difference between macroexpressions and microexpressions. When emotional experiences occur and there is no reason conscious or otherwise to suppress the feelings, humans display a variety of facial expressions. These usually lasts from a fraction of a second to several seconds at a time. E.g., you see your toddler taking her first steps, an immediately a feeling of surprise mixed with happiness is experienced. The emotions run high as the pyramidal tract delivers signals originating from the cortical motor strip and your facial expressions do the rest.
These are macroexpressions. Microexpressions, on the other hand are suppressive in nature. Microexpressions are a set of facial expressions that happen without the individual having any control over them. It happens when you are trying to suppress an emotional outburst in the form of a facial expression. It can also happen when you are going through a series of emotional experiences and the brain is trying to process them at a rapid pace. This form of suppression could be active and conscious or repressive (where the act of concealment is involuntary). In either case the microexpression lasts for only a fraction of second.
The suppression of facial expressions may or may not work in the long run. When you are actively trying to suppress your emotional feelings and they are overwhelmingly strong, you go through a process of emotional strife inside you. Your active concealment efforts may not succeed resulting in a breakout of facial expressions. E.g., your significant other is hurriedly leaving for office and you notice that he has his fly undone. The initial attempt to conceal your amusement gives away and you break into a laughter when you see him hurriedly trying to save his modesty.
On a different note, did you know that such microexpressions are also prevalent in chimpanzees? And why not they are the closest primates in terms of behavioral parity to us Homo sapiens.
Applicability of the Study of Facial Expressions
Understanding facial expressions and interpreting them to get a deeper insight into an individual’s brains can have some really serious real world applications. What do you think criminologists do when they profile an individual or interrogators attempt when they interrogate a suspect? Apart from the answers that receive verbally they read each and every facial expressions, trying to understand them, find a pattern and validate their own theories about the individual. Both the sciences of macro and microexpression reading are effective tools in the fight against crime.
There are advanced computer programs, now available in the hands of law enforcement officials and judicial processes, which assist in the correct identification of facial expressions leading to assessment of a suspect and identifying whether or not he is guilty. Researches done across the globe have been extremely beneficial in this regard as a database of facial expressions across cultural boundaries are now available in the hands of law enforcement officials. These are used to match correct emotional state and thereby ‘read’ an individual better. If you are in the business of crime prevention or is a law enforcement officer you may want to check this wonderful course on reading facial expressions to detect lies.
There are also some real world applications of reading facial expressions in business environments as well. Businesses often make critical decision based on information which are incomplete. Misleading and prejudicial intentions may often lead to incorrect information being filtered down to the decision makers. If there were a way to identify whether the information being passed on is correct or misleading, right at the source, losses can be averted and careers can be saved. E.g., a company engaged in a business deal with a supplier could benefit from knowing if they are dealing with a reliable individual / business. If the business has an individual in the team who is trained in the science of reading facial expressions they have a very powerful weapon which can work in their favor and give them an edge. This man can identify if the person the business is dealing with is telling a lie or is honest about his intentions.
Negotiations between union and management can be more effective when each party knows that the other is playing honest and is willing to come to an agreement for the greater good of all. Imagine how many labor problems can be settled without a single day of loss in productivity if there were trained face readers in meetings?
Understanding facial expressions play an effective role in academics as well. How many times have your teacher correctly understood that you haven’t got the hang of things in the class? Ever wondered how he managed to do that? Now you know.
Finally, understanding facial expressions has a deep social implication as well. Many a times we individuals don’t or rather fail to communicate with the ones that we love or care for. There are conflicting emotions such as pride, anger, selfishness, self-esteem that dilute our judgment and form a barrier to effective communication with others. But what if others could read your face and realize your emotional condition and reach out to you? What if you could do that yourself and reach out to friends who may need help but are unable to express it themselves? While human facial expressions are a natural thing and we are able to understand the major signs because of our innate abilities, microexpressions are something that are not so easy to understand and read. To understand more about microexpressions and improve our social life, resources such this course on face reading are really helpful.