Improving Your Brain Tools: Reading Emotional Messages in the Face

Mona LisaConcealed emotions, microexpressions, are the fleeting expressions that people make when they are consciously or unconsciously trying to hide their true emotional response. In conscious microexpressions they may be trying to lie, while with unconscious expressions, they may not even be aware of what they are truly feeling. Paul Ekman, Ph.D. has made a study of these microexpressions and can provide you the training you need to recognize them, and the counseling you need on how to use that insight appropriately. According to Ekman, “These expressions tend to be very extreme and very fast. Eighty to 90 percent of people we tested don’t see them.”


Ekman was a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco for 32 years. His original focus was on “nonverbal” behavior, and by the mid-60s, he concentrated on the expression and physiology of emotion. He has developed a secondary interest in interpersonal deception as well. Perhaps his most famous publication is the The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) which is used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies everywhere, as well as parents and therapists who want to be able to understand people around them better.

“With my children, spouse, friends and work associates, if I don’t understand how they’re feeling — either about me or about (things) that may have nothing to do with me when we interact — then I’m not going to have a very useful exchange with them,” Ekman said.

In the 60s and 70s when Ekman began looking into the universality of facial expressions, all the major contemporary social scientists, like Margaret Mead, believed that expressions were culturally learned, not innate. He proceeded traveled all over the world with pictures of people making distinct facial expressions and found people in cultures everywhere, from modern to stone age, agreed on the emotion behind the expression. He then turned to studying the production of these expressions and the 43 facial muscles that can create 10,000 expressions, which form the basis of his training.

He found seven universal emotions with unique facial expression. The emotions are: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness, surprise, and contempt. At least five of these are shared with non-human primates as well. Interestingly, the smile is the easiest expression to recognize, and the easiest to identify from afar. These emotions have a specific trigger, come quickly without thought, and interact with your physiology – meaning merely making the fear expression will create a fear response in your body as well. With fear, neurons will signal your body to prepare to flee by sending blood to the large voluntary muscles in your legs. In anger, on the other hand, your brain signals your body to fight by sending blood to your hands. Try practicing on yourself: can you feel a change in your emotional state by making changes in your facial expression?

Emotions have distinct triggers and learning those triggers is an important step in understanding your own emotions and why you respond the way you do. To date, the best way to learn to recognize the the impulse that was triggered before the awareness of the emotion is contemplative practice (meditation). Also, an important point to clarify, emotions are not moods, which are longer affective experiences have an unclear trigger (you may not be sure what sparked the mood you’re in) and tend to filter your view of the environment.

More Information
Online Facial Expressions Test based on the MicroExpression Training Tools developed by Ekman
The Naked Face” by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, August 5, 2002
What a Half-Smile Really Means” by Kim Zetter, Wired, September 2, 2003
Paul Ekman, Ph.D. Complete Bibliography
MicroExpression Training Tools (METT) and Subtle Expression Training Tools (SETT)

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