Exploring Facial Expressions with Paul Ekman

Exploring Facial Expressions with Paul Ekman


When explorers first began to meet different cultures around the world, they noticed something unusual about the expression of emotion. The face a foreign person made to show “happiness”, “anger” or “surprise” was exactly the same face people made back in their home country! The scientists began to wonder, “Do all people across culture share the same, universal facial expressions for emotion?” Dr. Paul Ekman, a world renewed psychologist, set out to answer this question. And from his decades of research, we have come to understand the true complexity of human emotions. The big question in going to New Guinea was not, am I going to find out whether they’re universal, I already knew they’re universal, is can I get scientific evidence. As a young scientist, Dr. Ekman traveled to the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea to study the four tribesmen. To prove his theory, he had to show that even these people, who had never met other cultures, shared the same universal facial expressions for emotion. I collected stories and the stories were just what I would have expected. When I showed them the “sad” face, the most common story was, that the child had died. And I showed them an “angry” face, the most common story was, they were fighting or about to fight. When the four tribesmen looked at these pictures, they were actually examining the muscles of the face. Searching for clues in the position of the eyes, mouth or nose, that would reveal to them how that person was feeling. As sad face showing slightly closed eyes. An angry face showing pinched eyebrows. Each emotion has its own unique signal or facial expression clue. The signal is quite loud. They are not subtle signals. You don’t have to teach anybody how to recognize those seven emotions. We teach people how to recognize when someone’s trying to conceal them. Which is not too easy to do. Dr. Ekman is also an expert on the science of lying. His research investigates the facial movements involved in hidden emotions. And creates techniques for detecting when people are hiding the truth. The facial expressions of emotion are involuntary. And they come from an area of the brain that you don’t have voluntary control over. Some people… are able to acquire the ability to, at least partially, inhibit, we found about five percent of a normal population can completely inhibit any expression. Ninety-five percent can’t. Ninety-five percent will… there’ll be some kind of leakage, you’ll see it in some muscles moving or you’ll see what we call a “micro facial expression” a very brief, about a twenty-fifth of a second. But, most people will miss, unless you’ve been trained to see them. But you can learn to see them. When people lie, some part of the emotional signal, a small clue from a raised lip or a quick look of the eyes, leaks out. This is because micro expressions, like, breathing, blinking and yawning, are controlled by our involuntary nervous system. When we feel pain… “Ouch!” the muscles of our face move automatically. And, like a reflex, we cannot control this reaction. Discovering this fact was key to understanding how facial expressions and felt emotions are connected. Almost, with one exception, all of my discoveries that have had import, were the result of accident! I can’t take credit for the idea, but when an… an opportunity fell into my lap, I persevered like mad. And… I aimed as high as I could see and a little higher. Interested in examining facial expressions and making your own discoveries? Aim high, persevere and visit the Curiosity Machine to learn more!

About the Author: Earl Hamill

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