Tuesday, January 7, 2014

What's in a Face? The Power of Facial Expressions

The human face has about fifty muscles and can generate thousands of facial expressions. How do all these muscles know what to do? Compared to the human arm, the face in motion is like a congested traffic circle with just one traffic cop, the facial nerve, telling the nerve impulses which muscles to contract, to create a smile, a frown or a yawn.

The face has the hardest job of all our body parts. It has to keep us alive and maintain us in good social and emotional health. Without a face we couldn't eat, see, smell or hear, but we have also entrusted our face with the task of expressing our emotions, our desires and needs. It is the most important part of our body for communication.

Living creatures didn't always have a face. At first, it was just a mouth, when we were still happily swimming around in the primordial seas. Our current features took shape after we crawled on land and decided to stand upright instead of walk on all fours. We could now see a lot further and didn't have to rely on our nose so much. Ever since then, our face has become the primary focus of our attention. When we are introduced to someone at a party, we don’t bend down and scrutinize their knees to see what kind of person they are.

The study of the face has a long history. In his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin reasoned that a long time ago certain facial movements served a biologically adaptive function, and that over countless generations their association with the emotions became innate. When I cringe my face into an expression of disgust, my nostrils narrow, my mouth closes and this decreases the risk of inhaling or ingesting something harmful. Similarly, when I express fear, my eyes open wide, my nostrils expand and this increases my sensory vigilance to detect and elude threats.

Although we all share the same facial structure: two eyes, one nose, one mouth, it is what we can do with our faces that is so fascinating. It is the ultimate nonverbal communication machine. But you could contort your face until you see blue in the face; if there were no one to interpret your grimacing, it wouldn't be very useful, would it? Human infants not only have to learn how to smile, they also have to learn how to recognize a smile in others. This ability is called 'social referencing'. By watching their mother's face, babies learn what is safe and what is not, what is acceptable and what is not. Adults use social referencing all the time to decide how to react appropriately. If you are good at reading emotions, you have what is called high 'emotional intelligence'. ++

The experts hotly debate whether facial expressions are universal or culturally determined. Is a smile a smile for everyone on the globe, or is there a tribe somewhere that would bash your head in if you smiled at them? Darwin thought they were universal, but more recent studies have shown that many facial expressions are learnt and depend on one's culture. I am not an expert, but I have always suspected this. I think it even depends on your age, your sex and your sub-culture. I always feel at a loss amongst teenagers, because they never show how they feel. It's not cool. The blank, bored stare of the punk subculture is a good example. Watch the movie 'Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' and you'll know what I mean.

I feel more comfortable with the seasoned face of middle age. By then, one has learnt that emotions are transitory and that showing them will not raise your electricity bill. I like very old people faces even more. By then, there is no need for smiling or frowning any more. Time has permanently etched those emotions on your face. George Orwell said that after the age of 50, a person is responsible for his own face.

In some cultures, the rules of conduct do not encourage the expression of emotions. It could upset the apple cart, especially in 'group oriented' societies, where saving 'face' is crucial. My Japanese friend Masako told me with a smile that she just had wrecked her car and wanted me to help her with the paper work.

I am one of those emotional Hungarians who have never been able to put on a poker face. When I cry, my face turns into a ghastly caricature of myself and I am much too busy being sad to worry about how I look. I wonder how some film stars do it? You can tell they are crying because of the wet stuff on their cheeks, but not a single facial muscle twitches. Is it the Botox? Are they worried about wrinkles?

Although Americans are not afraid of showing their emotions, they are not exactly known for abundantly sniveling and crying in public. The tough pioneer spirit is still running through their veins and they would rather do their crying behind closed doors. This is in sharp contrast to some Muslim countries, where people are very demonstrative in their grief. There is a custom of hiring professional mourners to weep and howl at funerals and I am surprised this concept hasn't caught on in our free enterprise environment. With our reluctance to show sadness, there must be a vast market for 'Rent-a-weepers'.

But America's obsession with the smile is unsurpassed. It has become the default expression in our culture. Whether you are witnessing an accident or just found out that your wallet was stolen, as soon as you notice someone taking your picture, out pops the smile. In the olden days, it was different. Having your photograph taken was a solemn affair and it took about as long as posing for a painting. The high cost must have put a damper on any urge to smile. Besides, using your zygomatic muscle for that hours on end would have caused severe jaw cramps.

Before the advent of photography, only imbeciles and people of low social status smiled, when depicted in art. You never see portraits of Queens and Kings grinning back at you. Power and dominance disdains the smile. Now, we even smile to cover up negative emotions. The smile has made having the blues taboo. Either that, or it is a symptom of America's obsession with having perfect teeth. What's the point of spending the most vulnerable of your life wearing braces, if you cannot cash in on the results? **

What if a culture doesn't have a word for an emotion? The German 'Schadenfreude' means 'the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others'. It could be translated as 'gloating', but it's not quite that. Does it mean that English speakers are saints and never feel 'Schadenfreude'? The Mexican expression 'Pena ajena' is 'the embarrassment you feel watching someone else's humiliation.' How do you translate that in English? Second-hand embarrassment? Obviously we do have those feelings, but is the lack of the word a reflection of a linguistic shortcoming or a stunted emotional spectrum?

It's a good thing that we have the ability to show how we feel. It is safer to show your anger by frowning than by punching someone in the face. Not only does it serve as a buffer between thought and action, facial expressions are the glue that binds us all together. I show you how I feel, which makes you show me how you feel about how I feel. And so on…

Facial expressions have even found their way into cyberspace. Emoticons are proof that humans need facial expressions to communicate. How else will you show that you are :-) or :-( ?
Anyway, all I can hope for, is that this article has made you :-D a little. leave comment here

++ You can test your own ability by taking this test here.
** Source: American Cheese