the character of facial expression

16Mar11

goya_caprichosThe meaning of facial expressions have intrigued artists and scientists through the ages. The art of expressing emotions is explicitly used in theater, cartoons and animation. Apart from the body also the face is elementary to bring a character alive. Goya used this in his Caprioches: the 80 prints of universal follies and foolishness in the Spanish society around 1800. In the Belvedere Palace in Vienna you can find 60 character-heads made by Frank Xaver Messerschmidt (1736-1787). From 1770, the curve and pathos of baroque sensibility yielded to a cool austerity and rigorous precision in the representation of appearance. His aggressive art of characterisation broke ground for truth and realism in the human portrayal. His heads show a world of anatomic and psychological variety and are powerful in conveying human expressions. The art of expressing emotion through a composition of facial lines is also explored by Ensor, it gives individuality to the minuscule persons in the crowds of his drawings. And the artists of his time: the primitivs (like Picasso) explored African masks to find essential facial compositions.messerschmidt

Thanks to Paul Ekman professor psychology we know more about our facial muscles as mechanism of communication. Usually our facial expression is not created consciously. In fact this involuntary facial movement is used by detectives to find out if you are lying. Ekman could flex each of his 43 facial muscles individually and on demand. Thus establishing which group of muscles worked together to create meaning. Together with Friesen he developed FACS – facial action coding system in 1970 (published in 1978). Research showed that a number of (basic) emotional expressions were universal. Which let to the use of ‘character-heads‘ in usability-research.

ensorBut reading facial expressions does not stop with the “window-value” (outer impact). We can convey meaning by adding emotions with our facial expression. Ekman also wrote an article about the “mirror-value” (inner impact). He states that the flexing of facial muscles is a signal to the self about one’s own emotional state. Since we have realized the sending power of our facial expression, we have tried to master it’s behavior even with the help of chemicals (botox). We all know the embarrassing feeling when in a moment of dispair we can not master our feelings: the grim twitch around the mouth when you do not agree, the pictures that catch you off-guard and show you are bored. Normally we try to avoid this when we are in public.

primitivism momaThe question is can we also influence our inner reflection? Does your worldview become more positive when you smile a lot? Can facial-physiotherapy influence our state of mind?  In social settings (like organisations) the expression of success/strength influences our evaluation, neural research shows that we can be mislead by contextual signals. Are we the masters of our own fate?

In essence our  facial expression is not hard to master when it is close to the original stimulus: a  smile brought back to a grin or laughter to chuckle. But if we try to alter the emotion it’s harder to make all the muscles of the pattern work together. monkeyThe mixed signals derived from the brain take time to compose a coherent look. Can we learn from how we master our facial expressions if we want to influence our social expression?

Also about reflection: from full to intensified experience

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One Response to “the character of facial expression”

  1. 1 socrtz

    David Brooks talks at TED about emotions that are the foundation of reason and most of all that we ‘humans’ emerge out of relationships and a trait like blending, the source of innovation. Like Picasso did, he took the concept Western art and the concept African masks and blended them together — not only the geometry, but the moral systems entailed in them.


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