Growing out of resurging interest in the emotions, psychologists have been poring over the human visage with the intensity of cryptographers scrutinizing a hidden code. In fact, the pursuits are strikingly similar. The face is the most extraordinary communicator, capable of accurately signaling emotion in a bare blink of a second, capable of concealing emotion equally well. "In a sense, the face is equipped to lie the most and leak the most, and thus can be a very confusing source of information," observes Paul Ekman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California in San Francisco and a pioneer in studying the human countenance.
"The face is both ultimate truth and rata morgana," declares Daniel McNeill, author of the new book The Face (Little Brown & Company), a vivid survey of face-related lore from the history of the nose to the merits of plastic surgery. "It is a magnificent surface, and in the last 20 years, we've learned more about it than in the previous 20 millennia."
Today, scientists are starting to comprehend the face's contradiction, to decipher the importance of both the lie and leak, and to puzzle out a basic mystery. Why would an intensely social species like ours, reliant on communication, be apparently designed to give mixed messages? By connecting expression to brain activity with extraordinary precision, researchers are now literally going beyond "skin deep" in understanding how the face connects us, when it pulls us apart. "The face is a probe, a way of helping us see what's behind people's interactions," explains psychology professor Dacher Kelther, Ph.D., of the University of California-Berkeley Among the new findings:
o With just 44 muscles, nerves, and blood vessels threaded through a scaffolding of bone and cartilage, all layered over by supple skin, the face can twist and pull into 5,000 expressions, all the way from an outright grin to the faintest sneer.
o There's a distinct anatomical difference between real and feigned expressions--and in the biological effect they produce in the creators of those expressions.
o We send and read signals with lightning-like speed and over great distances. A browflash--the lift of the eyebrow common when greeting a friend lasts only a sixth of a second. We can tell in a blink of a second if a strangers face is registering surprise or pleasure--even if he or she is 150 feet away
o Smiles are such an important part of communication that we see them far more clearly than any other expression. We can pick up a smile at 300 feet--the length of a football field.
o Facial expressions are largely universal, products of biological imperatives. We are programmed to make and read faces. "The abilities to express and recognize emotion are inborn, genetic, evolutionary," declares George Rotter, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Montclair University in New Jersey
o Culture, parenting, and experience can temper our ability to display and interpret emotions. Abused children may be prone to trouble because they cannot correctly gauge the meaning and intent of others' facial expressions.
Deciphering facial expressions first entails understanding how they are created. Since the 1980s, Ekman and Wallace Friesen, Ph.D., of the University of California in San Francisco, have been painstakingly ino ventorying the muscle movements that pull our features into frowns, smiles, and glares. Under their Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a wink is Action Unit 46, involving a twitch of a single muscle, the obicularis oculi, which wraps around the eye. Wrinkle your nose (Action Unit 09), that's a production of two muscles, the levator labii superioris and the alaeque nasi.
The smile, the most recognizable signal in the world, is a much more complex endeavor. Ekman and colleagues have so far identified 19 versions, each engaging slightly different combinations of muscles. Consider two: the beam shared by lovers reunited after a long absence and the smile given by a teller passing back the deposit slip to a bank patron.
The old phrase "smiling eyes" is exactly on target. When we are genuinely happy, as in the two lovers' reunion, we produce what Ekman and Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison call a "felt" smile. The zygomatic major muscles, which run from cheekbone to the corner of the mouth, pull the lips upward, while the obicularis oculi crinkle the outer corner of the eyes. In contrast, the polite smile offered by the bank teller (or by someone hearing a traveling salesman joke for the hundredth time) pulls up the lips but, literally, doesn't reach the eyes.
It doesn't reach the brain either. Felt smiles, it seems, trigger a sort of pleasurable little hum, a scientifically measurable activity in their creators' left frontal cortex, the region of the brain where happiness is registered. Agreeable smiles simply don't produce that buzz.
Are we taught to smile and behave nicely in social situations? Well, certainly someone instructs us to say," "Have a nice day" But we seem to be born with the ability to offer both felt and social smiles. According to studies by Davidson and Nathan Fox of the University of Maryland, ten-monthold infants will curve their lips in response to the coo of friendly strangers, but they produce happy, felt smiles only at the approach of their mother. The babies' brains light with a smile, it appears, only for those they love.
Why are we keyed in so early to making faces? Charles Darwin argued in his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, that the ability to signal feelings, needs, and desires is critical to human survival and thus evolutionarily based. What if infants could not screw up their faces to communicate distress or hunger? Or if foes couldn't bare their teeth in angry snarls as a warning and threat? And what if we couldn't grasp the meaning of those signals in an instant but had to wait minutes for them to be decoded?
Eerything known about early hominid life suggests that was a highly social existence,"-observes Ekman, who has edited a just-published new edition of Darwin's classic work. "We had to deal with prey and predators; we had a very long period of child rearing. All of that would mean that survival would depend on our being able to respond quickly to each other's emotional states."
Today, the need is just as great. As Ekman points out, "Imagine the trouble we'd be in, if when an aunt came to visit, she had to be taught what a newborn baby's expression meant--let alone if she was going to be a caretaker." Or if, in our world of non-stop far-flung travel, an expression of intense pain was understood in one society but not in another. "And yet," says Ekman, "we can move people from one culture to another and they just know."
Researchers have identified six basic or universal expressions t appear to be hardwired in our brains, both to make and to read: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, and happiness. Show photos of an infuriated New Yorker to a highmountain Tibetan or of a miserable New Guinea tribeswoman to a Japanese worker, and there's no translation problem. Everyone makes the same face-- and everyone gets the message.
One of of the expressions that hasn't made the universal list but probably should is embarrassment. It reflects one of our least favorite emotions: who doesn't loathe that red-faced feeling of looking like a fool? Yet such displays are far less self-centered than has been assumed. Rather than marking a personal humiliation, contends Keltner, embarrassment seems designed to prompt social conciliation.
Think about it. If we accidentally spill a drink on a colleague, stumble into a stranger in the hall, what's the best way to defuse the tension and avoid an escalation into battle? Often, notes Kelther, even before offering a verbal apology, we appease the injured party by showing embarrassment.
When we're embarrassed, our hands tend to come up, partly covering the face. We rub the side of the nose. We cast our eyes downward. We also try to appear smaller, to shrink into ourselves. These behaviors aren't uniquely ours. In awkward social situations, chimpanzees and monkeys do the same thing--and accomplish the same end: The actions defuse hostility, offer a tacit apology, even elicit sympathy in viewers. (When Keltner first tentatively introduced his chosen topic at research meetings, even jaded scientists let out immediate empathetic "oohs" at the slides of people with red faces).
There are physiological changes associated with this, notes Keltner. 'If people see an angry face staring at them, they have a heightened autonomic response--rising stress hormones, speeding pulse--all the signs of fear. When they see an embarrassment response, fear is reduced."
A reddened face and downward glance typically start a rapid de-escalation of hostility among children involved in playground quarrels, says Keltner. Parents go easier on youngsters who show visible embarrassment after breaking a household rule, such as playing handball on the living room wall or chasing the dog up and downstairs throughout the house. Adults also go easier on adults. In one of Keltner's studies, jurors in a hypothetical trial meted out much lighter sentences when convicted drug dealers displayed the classic signs of embarrassment.
Expressions aren't dictated by biology alone, however; they are deeply influenced by cultural attitudes. De Paul University psychologist Linda Camras, Ph.D., has been exploring why European-American adults seem so much more willing than Asians to express emotion in public. In one experiment, she studied the reactions of EuropeanAmerican and Asian infants, age 11 months, to being restrained by having one arm lightly grasped by a researcher.
European-American and Japanese babies were remarkably similar in their visible dislike of being held still by a strangers grip. (The scientists let go if the babies cried for seven seconds straight.) Since infants show no apparent inborn difference in the willingness to publicly express dismay, it stands to reason that they must eventually learn the "appropriate" way to express themselves from their families and the society in which they are reared.
Ekman's work clearly shows how culture teaches us to e our instinctive emotional reactions. In one set of studies, he asked American and Japanese college students to watch nature films of streams tumbling down mountainsides and trees rustling 'in the wind, and also graphic tapes of gory surgeries, including limb amputations. Everyone grimaced at the spurting blood at first. But when a note-taking scientist clad in a white coat--the ultimate-authority figure--sat in on watching the films, the Japanese students' behavior altered radically. Instead of showings revulsion, they greeted the bloody films with smiles.
"No wonder that foreigners who visit or live among the Japanese think that their expressions are different from Americans," says Ekman. "They see the results of the cultural display rules, masking and modifying the underlying universal expressions of emotion."
Mental or physical illness, too, can interfere with the ability to make faces--with profound consequences for relationships, researchers are learning. Neurophysiologist Jonathan Cole, of Poole Hospital at the University of Southampton, Great Britain, and author of the new book About Face (MIT Press), points out that people with Parkinson's disease are often perceived as boring or dull because their faces are rigid and immobile.
Consider also depression. As everyone knows, it shuts down communication. But that doesn't mean only that depressed people withdraw and talk less. The normal expressiveness of the face shuts down as well.
In one experiment, psychologist Jeffrey Cohn, Ph.D., of the University of Pittsburgh had healthy mothers mimic a depressed face while holding their infants. The women were told not to smile. Their babies responded with almost instant dismay At first they tried desperately to recruit a response from their mother, smiling more, gurgling, reaching out. "The fact that the babies were trying to elicit their mother's response shows that at an early age, we do have the beginnings of a social skill for resolving interpersonal failures," Cohn notes.
But equally important, the infants simply could not continue to interact without receiving a response. They stopped their efforts. The experiment lasted only three minutes, but by that time, the babies were themselves withdrawn. "When mothers again resumed normal behavior, babies remained distant and distressed for up to a minute," says Cohn. "You can see that maternal depression, were it chronic, could have developmental consequences."
In fact, children of depressed parents tend to become very detached in their relationships with others. They often fail to connect with other people throughout their life and experience difficulties in romantic relationships and marriage, in large part, researchers suspect, because they have trouble producing and picking up on emotional signals. "We think that the lack of facial animation interferes with forming relationships," says Keltner.
Displays of emotion are only half the equation, of ourse. How viewers interpret those signals is equally important. "We evolved a system to communicate and a capacity to interpret," observes Kelther. "But much less is known about the interpreting capacity."
What scientists do know for certain is that we are surprisingly bad at discerning the real emotions or intentions behind others' facial expressions. "One of the problems that people don't realize is how complicated face reading is," notes Pollak. "At first glance, it seems very straightforward, But if you break it down--think of all the information in the face, how quickly the brain has to comprehend and analyze it, memories come in, emotions, context, judgments--then you realize that we really can't do it all."
Or can't do it all well. What we seem to have done during our evolution is to learn shortcuts to face reading. In other words, we make snap judgments. "It's not actually a conscious decision," Pollak explains. "But decisions are being made in the brain What am I going to pay attention to? What am I going to clue into?"
Most of us are pretty good at the strong signals--sobbing, a big grin--but we stumble on the subtleties. Some people are better than others. There's some evidence that women are more adept than men at picking up the weaker signals, especially in women's faces.
In an experiment conducted by University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists Ruben and Raquel Gur, men and women were shown photos of faces. Both genders did well at reading men's expressions. Men also were good at picking up happiness in female faces; they got it right about 90% of the time. But when it came to recognizing distress signals in women's faces, their accuracy fell to 70%.
"A woman's face had to be really sad for men to see it," says Ruben Gur. The explanation may lie in early human history. Charged with protecting their tribes, men had to be able to quickly read threats from other males, suggests Gur. Women, in contrast, entrusted with child-rearing, became more finelytuned to interpreting emotions.
We may be biologically primed grasp certain expressions, but our individual experiences and abilities also filter the meaning. Mental disorders, apparently, can swamp the biology of facial recognition. People with schizophrenia, for instance, are notoriously bad at face reading; when asked to look at photographs, they struggle to separate a happy face from a neutral one.
Seth Pollak, Ph.D., a psychologist at University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been exploring how children who have suffered extreme parental abuse--broken bones, burn scarring--read faces. In his studies, he asks these youngsters and those from normal homes to look at three photographs of faces which display classic expressions of fear, anger, and happiness. Meanwhile, electrodes attached to their heads measure their brain activity.
Battered children seem to sustain a damaging one-two punch, Pollak is finding. Overall, they have a subdued level of electrical activity in the brain. (So, in fact, do people suffering from schizophrenia or alcoholism. It seems to be a sign of trouble within.) However, when abused youngsters look at the photo of an angry face, they rapidly generate a rising wave of electrical energy, sharper and stronger than anything measured in children who live in less threatening homes.
When Pollak further analyzed the brain activity readings, he found that abused children generate that panicky reaction even when there's no reason to, misreading as angry some of the other pictured faces. They are so primed to see anger, so poised for it, that when making split-second judgments, they tilt toward detection of rage.
This fall in line with findings from Paul;'s Camras and other psychologists, which show that abused children struggle significantly more in deciphering expression. "Overall, there's a relationship between the expressive behavior of the mother and the child's recognition ability," Camras says. "And it's an interesting kind of a difference."
Identifying negative expressions seems to be essential in human interaction; four of the six universal expressions are negative. In most homes, notes Camras, mothers use "mild negative expressions, little frowns, tightening of the mouth." Children from such families are very good at detecting early signs of anger. But youngsters from homes with raging furious moms have trouble recognizing anger. "If the mom gets really angry, it's so frightening, it's so disorganizing for children that it seems they can't learn anything from it."
THE BEST DEFENSE
So, out of sheer self-protection, if e children from abusive homes are uncertain about what a face says-as they often are--they'll fall back on anger as the meaning and prepare to defend themselves. "They overdetect rage," says Pollak. Does this create problems in their relationships outside the home? It's a logical, if as yet unproven, conclusion.
What Darwin tells us is that lift emotions are adaptations," Pollak explains. "If a child is physically abused, I'd put my money on an adaptation toward assuming hostile intent. Look at the cost for these kids of missing a threat. So what happens is, they do better in the short run--they're very acute at detecting anger and threat because unfortunately they have to be. But take them out of those maltreating families and put them with other people and their reactions don't fit."
One of Pollak's long-term goals is to find out if such harmful effects can be reversed, if abused children can regain or reconstruct the social skills--that is, reading faces--that are evidently so critical to our design.
Failure to read signals accurately may also figure in juvenile delinquency. "There are studies that have found that juvenile delinquents who are prone to aggression have trouble deciphering certain expressions," says Keltner. "They're not as good as other kids at it. Is that because they're particularly bad at reading appeasement signals like embarrassment? That's something we'd really like to know."
TRUTH OR LIES?
One area where everyone seems to ave trouble in reading faces is in detecting deception. We average between 45 and 65% accuracy in picking up lies--pretty dismal when one..consider that chance is 50%. Secret Service agents can notch that up a bit to about 64%; scientists suspect that improvement comes only after years of scanning crowds, looking for the faces of potential assassins.
Con artists, too, seem to be especially adept at reading expressions. The latter are also skilled at faking emotions, a trait they share with actors. Not surprising, since success in both careers depends on fooling people.
We seem to be duped particularly easily by a smile. In fact, we tend to implicitly trust a smiling face, just as we do a baby-faced one. In one experiment, Rotter cut out yearbook photos of college students and then asked people to rate the individuals pictured for trustworthiness. In almost every instance, people chose the students with smiling faces as the most honest. Women with the biggest grins scored the best; men needed only a slight curve of the lips to be considered truthful. "Smiles are an enormous controller of how people perceive you," says Rotter. "It's an extremely powerful communicator, much more so than the eyes."
Incidentally, we aren't suckered only by human faces. We can be equally and easily tricked by our fellow primates. In one classic story, a young lowland gorilla gently approached a keeper, stared affectionately into his face, gave him a hug--and stole his watch. Chimpanzees, too, are famous for their friendly-faced success in luring lab workers to approach, and then triumphantly spraying them with a mouthful of water.
There are clues to insincerity. We tend to hold a simulated expression longer than a real one. If we look carefully, a phony smile may have the slightly fixed expression that a child's face gets when setting a smile for a photograph. As we've discussed, we also use different muscles for felt and fake expressions. And we are apt to blink more when we're lying. But not always--and that's the problem. When Canadian researchers Susan Hyde, Kenneth Craig, and Chrisopher Patrick asked people to simulate an expression of pain, they found that the fakers used the same facial muscles--lowering their brows, tightening their lips--as did those in genuine pain. In fact, the only way to detect the fakers was that the expressions were slightly exaggerated and "blinking occurred less often, perhaps because of the cognitive demands to act as if they were in pain," the scientists explain.
We do a better job of finding a falsehood by listening to the tone of a voice or examining the stance of a body than by reading the face, maintains Ekman, who has served as a consultant for police departments, intelligence agencies, and antiterrorist groups. He's even been approached by a national television network--"I can't tell you which one"--eager to train its reporters to better recognize when sources are lying.
Which brings us to perhaps the most provocative mystery of the face: why are we so willing to trust in what the face tells us, to put our faith in a steady gaze, a smiling look? With so much apparently at stake in reading facial cues correctly, why are we so prone to mistakes?
Most of us don't pick up lies and, actually, most of us don't care to," declares Ekman. "Part of the way politeness works is that we expect people to mislead us sometimes--say, on a bad hair day. What we care about is that the person goes through the proper role."
Modern existence, it seems, is predicated to some extent on ignoring the true meaning of faces: our lives run more smoothly if we don't know whether people really find our. jokes funny. It runs more smoothly if we don't know when people are lying to us. And perhaps it runs more smoothly if men can't read women's expressions of distress.
Darwin himself told of sitting across from an elderly woman on a railway carriage and observing that her mouth was pulled down at the corners. A proper British Victorian, he assumed that no one would display grief while traveling on public transportation. He began musing on what else might cause her frown.
While he sat there, analyzing, the woman's eyes suddenly overflowed with tears. Then she blinked them away, and there was nothing but the quiet distance between two passengers. Darwin never knew what she was thinking. Hers was a private grief, not to be shared with a stranger.
There's a lesson in that still, for all of us airport face-watchers today. That we may always see only part of the story, that what the face keeps secret may be as valuable as what it shares.
PHOTO (COLOR): A SHOCKING MOMENT: Oksana Baiul gets emotional on winning Olympic gold.
PHOTO (COLOR): Brazil's Cafu celebrates a goal at soccer's World Cup finals.
PHOTOS (COLOR):Four Faces of Joy (clockwise): Michael Jordan, Kim Basinger, Willem Dafoe, and Dot Richardson.
PHOTOS (COLOR): Faces of Sadness (from left): despairing woman waits for word of husband; Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson; an unhappy 3-year-old get unwelcom instructions.
PHOTOS (COLOR): Faces of Sadness (from left): Robert J. Kennedy Jr. at brother's funeral, mourner at Oklahoma City Remembrance; Jennifer Capriati react to press questions.
PHOTOS (COLOR): Anger and Disgust (clockwise): Jimmy Johnson of the Miami Dolphins, Ted Turner, Kate Moss, and Venus Williams.
PHOTO (COLOR): SMILES, the mos recognizable signal of HAPPINESS in the world, are so important that we can SEE them far more clearly than any other EXPRESSION--even at 300 feet, the length of a FOOTBALL field.
PHOTO (COLOR): We can move PEOPLE from culture to culture and they KNOW how to make and read the same basic expressions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust surprise, and happiness. The six appear to be HARDWIRED in our brains. EMBARRASEMENT, some suspect, may be a seventh.
PHOTO (COLOR): When it comes to READING the subtleties of emotion, women are the stronger SEX, While men almost alsways correctly recognize happiness in a female face, they pick up on DISTRES just 70% of the time. A WOMAN'S face has to be really sad for men to see it.
PHOTO (COLOR): Abused children are so POISED to detect anger that they ofter will READ it into other's faces even when it isn't there. That tendency may serve them well at HOME, where they need all the self defenses they can muster, but it can lead to TROUBLE outside.
Since ancient times, human beings have been making judgments about each other based not just on the expressions that cross the face but on its very structure. The practice of finding meaning in anatomy is enjoying a remarkable renaissance today.
A plethora of pop books ponder the significance of chins, eye slant, and eyebrows. One popular magazine has even started a new face-reading feature. First to be analyzed: President William Jefferson Clinton. His triangular face apparently indicates a dynamic and--big surprise--sexual personality. Among the theories :now being trotted out: heavy eyelids denote jealousy, a rosebud mouth promises fidelity, and a hairy brow line ensures restlessness.
Scientists dismiss these readings as no more than facial astrology. "There is as yet no good data to support this practice," observes Lesley Zebrowitz, professor of psychology at Brandeis University.
While many may regard it as a sort of harmless parlor game, face reading does have a more pernicious effect. Charles Darwin noted that he was almost barred from voyaging on the H.M.S. Beagle because the captain thought his nose suggested a lazy nature. In the 1920s. Los Angeles judge Edward Jones insisted that he could, with over 90% accuracy, determine someone was a "born criminal" by his protruding lips and too-close-together eyes.
Though today no one would make such a blatant assessment of character based on anatomy, facial shape at least subconsciously does appear to figure into our judgments. In her book, Reading Faces, Zebrowitz meticulously documents her research showing that baby-faced adults. with big eyes and full cheeks and lips, bring out in the rest of us a nurturing protective response, the kind we give to children.
In one remarkable study, she tracked proceedings in Boston small claims court for more than 500 cases and found that. whatever the evidence, chubby-cheeked plaintiffs were more apt to prevail than claimants with more mature-looking faces. Says Zebrowitz: "Although our judicial system talks about 'blind justice,' it's impossible to control the extra-legal factor of stereotyping based on physical appearance."
THE FACE OF THE FUTURE
Just five-and-a-half weeks after conception, the human face begins to form. Three nodes emerge on the surface of the fetus; the middle one grows outward to create the countenance. We grow muscle and nerves and eventually, unlike our more "primitive" coldblooded cousins, we develop soft, supple skin, and thick hair, which helps protect our warm-blooded bodies from chilly temperatures. Because we chew our food instead of swallowing it whole like lowlier creatures, our mouths are more than crude openings; they are sensitive malleable structures.
Early mammals, covered in hair, had smell and touch as their dominant senses. But over eons, vision became vital. Eyes migrated frontally, the better to see prey; long and dense facial hair eroded, leaving muscles free to work other parts of the face. Finally, the face could see and be seen by the world--and react to it. Today, thanks to evolution, we have faces capable of exquisite expressions of emotion.
But evolution continues. The faces we enjoy today may not be the ones our descendants bear, say scientists. What will the face of the future look like? Probably more youthful, predict researchers, because it is more sexually desirable. Attracting a mate is a driving imperative in nature, after all. Moving in the direction of looking younger, our teeth are gradually getting smaller and our heads balder.
According to some scientists, even more radical changes are in store, albeit millions of years down the evolutionary road. As the amount of sensory information assaulting the body increases, our eyes and ears may increase in size to handle all the input. As our verbal abilities and needs become more complex, our palates, larynxes, and tongues will grow larger. Our noses will shrink, however, as scent becomes even less important (we already have a very weak sense of smell compared with other animals). Nose hair, once used to warm incoming air, will become entirely superfluous, thanks to controlled temperatures.
New scientific research and technology will likely add to the changes in our visage. The dawning of genetic engineering takes our faces at least partly out of evolution's control and puts it in our own hands. In the future, we may be able to pick our features from a pattern book and anti-aging drugs may keep us wrinkle-free. Explorations through the cosmos will affect our faces as well. As studies with astronauts show, zero gravity initially erases wrinkles by redistributing blood and fluid in the head. With time, however, this face-lift becomes a downfall: eyes soon become bloodshot and skin becomes puffy. In just a few days, the distended face loses the ability to produce distinct expressions. Such setbacks are manageable. "Body suction machines," or aluminum barrels pulling fluid back down in the body, will allow space travelers to save face.
One of the most intriguing questions that confronts us is how the proliferation of communications technologies that diminish faceto-face interaction will alter the human countenance. Fax machines, e-mail, phones--all increase the ease and frequency of communication, yet decrease the need to actually see and read partners' faces. Part of the wonder of the evolved face has been its nuanced response to the countenances around it. What will become of our features-our faces--if they can't react to those of others?