Facial expressions

Ask any aquarium director what they want most in life and you’re likely to get some very strange answers but then the internet, and the work of people like Freud, suggest that deep down humans want a lot more in life than a regular cod dinner and the occasional sting of riding crop on bare buttock. Now ask an aquarium director whether they would like a beluga whale and his or her eyebrows are likely to arch with ill-concealed interest, for beluga whales are what sell soft toys in the gift shop. This is because they are not only of a size that can be FedEx-ed around aquariums, but they also have, out of all whales, the widest apparent range of facial expressions. This is explained by their unfused cervical vertebrae which allows for a greater range of movement. Now, whether or not they are actually smiling doesn’t concern the aquarium director, for what matters to the aquarium director are happy customers. Happy customers buy soft toys. Yet the facial expression of aquarium directors, thrill seeking holiday makers and indeed, beluga whales, is something that has attracted a considerable amount of academic interest. And for good reason.

For those who study humans it is not only the bright ones who have been able to deduce that facial expressions are a vital part of communication. From photos of het up neo-Nazi hooligans to Lisa Gherardini’s enigmatic smile, facial expression is both stark and subtle; hidden with nuance on occasion, etched with taut emotion on the other. Humans have long been able to quickly discern the state of play with a furtive sideways glance, whether it be from the spittle flecked beards of the sex-crazed Viking to the twitch of moustache from the bailed out Greek. Darwin argued that the expression of emotions has evolved from animals, many of whom have long used similar means of communication and facial expressions are also believed to be innate; meaning they are not learnt. Show a baby from the remote depths of the Amazon jungle a photo of a two-bed semi desperately clinging to a dual carriageway outside of Burnley and you’re likely to get the same horrified look as Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen.

There are basically two brain pathways for facial expressions. The first one is voluntary, as in being given socks for Christmas. You smile, but it’s a thin one. The decision to smile is very much a conscious one. The second type is emotional. These expressions come not from the primary motor cortex, the bit of the brain that plans and executes movements, but from the extrapyramidal motor system, which involves subcortical nuclei. The extrapyramidal motor system basically refers to the part of the brain responsible for involuntary movements. The best example are children. Think of a two-year old whose raw emotions are cold to any sense of feeling for the impact on their parents, who just want them to eat some broccoli. These expressions are genuine. These are expressions of disgust, distress, anger, contempt, surprise and fear. What young children – babies specifically – also do very well, apart from cry on aeroplanes and wee on the carpet, is watch adults. Their ability to detect facial expressions is something that they are pre-disposed to do. They then mimic. It is why Italian babies grow up to be emotionally unstable Italian adults. It’s why Finnish babies grow up to be good at poker.

Now key to facial expressions, are the eyes – the “windows to the soul”. See how babies hold your gaze. They are not, as you might imagine, staring blankly into a blurry yonder, but they are watching you, sussing you out. Coo, then, with caution. It is because the eyes reveal how we are feeling. They sparkle in Santa’s grotto, glaze in seminars and go glassy on gin. They hide nothing. Blink rate also matters. There has been some research done by a bearded Boston professor which suggests that stress levels are revealed by blink rates. You guessed it, the more stressed we are, the more we blink. His work supports statistics on the relation between blink rates of Presidential candidates and their success in winning the keys to the White House. Yet it is not just the eyes. According to Hiram Powers, the great American neoclassical sculptor: “The eye is the window of the soul, the mouth the door. The intellect, the will, are seen in the eye; the emotions, sensibilities, and affections, in the mouth.” With hands covered in wet clay, he reportedly went on, “The animals look for man’s intentions right into his eyes. Even a rat, when you hunt him and bring him to bay, looks you in the eye” suggesting, perhaps, our Hiram spent some time in the cellar with a bottle of bourbon and 3-iron.

What’s, conceivably, of real value to anyone who has to deal with any shark-like IFA or cheating spouse, is the work of the US psychologist Dr Paul Ekman who has spent years studying mircoexpressions, powerful emotions that flit across our faces before we get a chance to stop them. They are impossible to conceal yet, with training, they are also detectable and can learn to spot ‘the show’. With politics lacing the headlines we are constantly reminded that we live in a world of pre-packaged lies and so one of Dr Ekman’s many books might be worth a read this summer. Buy one on Amazon. Then when you ask the next door neighbour if he’s been putting his rubbish in your recycling bin, look close. Real close.

Interesting stuff, but perhaps some further reading required.


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