Ever Wondered Where do Our Facial Expressions Come From?

There is a huge range of emotions that we feel, express and convey and there are also various ways to express these emotions. Many a times we, silently communicate through our facial expressions which involve motions of muscles beneath the skin of our face. These movements convey the emotional state of an individual to the observer.So many of the basic facial expressions are unlearned and are recognized as universal like anger, sadness, fear, surprise, happiness and disgust because these are reactions to the stimuli which eventually became associated with emotions.

‘The expression of emotions in man and animals’ by Darwin, published in 1872, states that emotional expressions are inherited by our ancestors which in turn help us to communicate in social groups increasing our survival. There are many olden days’ pictures in his books which help depicting certain emotions in certain way putting across the idea of universality of expressions.

Paul Ekman, in 1960s, started testing Darwin’s idea of universality by travelling to different places around the world conducting studies. For example, in New Guinea he met an isolated culture that had not seen the outside world. He asked them to pick a picture among different 3 set of photographs that they find relevant to express certain emotional stories like “old friends are coming to visit” or “you just stepped on rotten dead pig” and found out that they usually picked the one that he expected them to associate with the emotion in the story like a frown for sadness.This and other studies have suggested that, infants and even people who are born blind use the same facial expressions although they are not taught as to which expression goes with which emotion.

In 1970’s, Ekman and other researchers started working on to measure these expressions by documenting the muscle activity on the face. They came up with Facial Action Coding System or FACES which looks into the muscle engagement noting the duration, intensity and asymmetry of an expression. By comparing a person’s muscle movements on face with what an expression is supposed to look like, psychologists can use FACES to help them distinguish emotions. For example: telling real smiles from fake ones or identify certain emotions in people who cannot express verbally.

Even though it looks like we have inherited certain expressions from our ancestors and are hence inbuilt in us, in 2013, Cornell University studied as to why we evolved with these universal, basic expressions built-in.In this study, the researchers asked their subjects to make neutral, scared and disgusted expressions and then measured how much light reached their retinas with each of the expression. Intriguingly, it looks like, the facial expressions first evolved to help us react better to our environment by controlling our sensory input, like the amount of light we let into our eyes.

For clear understanding:

  • Consider you are walking through the jungle and you hear a loud crash like ‘thud’ and you involuntarily widen your eyes. This expands your vision and visual sensitivity letting in more light to locate danger.
  • Now, you, accidentally, step on poop, you would narrow your eyes in disgust letting in less light to sharpen your focus to examine your foot. With recoil of disgust you wrinkle your nose which decreases the size of nasal cavity so that less air flows in only to avoid the disgusting smell.

To wrap it up, our facial expressions are ‘innate’ but over the period of time we have learned to manage and mask our emotions which altogether is a different story!