Is your face an open book?

When you smile, you're probably happy. When you frown, you're probably not. Don't thank us for the information. We're all indebted for this frontiers-of-knowledge bulletin to Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California.

Well, to be perfectly fair, it's not as simple as that.Nothing ever is. In fact, Professor Ekman has spent 10 years breaking down the human face into a potential of 7,000 expressions, 14 of which he mugs on the pages of the current psychology Today. His mouth optimistically curves up. His mouth glumly curves down. His nose flares in disgust. Or is it contempt? His eyebrows arch to signal everything from bewilderment to amazement. We think.

But then things get really ambiguous. Are the Ekman eyes bulging in anger or in fear? Or perhaps he's trying to hypnotize us into accepting his theories. At any rate, it's enough to drive a caption-writer crazy -- which could be a fourth alternative.

Maybe it's Professor Ekman's fault as a mime. Maybe we're functionally illiterate as a reader of emotions. In any case, we've always been skeptical about people who claim your face is an open book, and we certainly curl our lip in our version of doubt at Professor Ekman's notion that one can devise a "Facial Action Coding System."

It has been our experience from earliest childhood that one man's grin is another man's grimace -- and in the face of Humphrey Bogart it could be both. We vividly recall a kindergarten classmate whose round ruddy cheeks shouted "Jolly lad!" at you. In fact, he was, for five years old, a regular little Hamlet, a real brooder. Nothing he could do with his face expressed what he felt; he was a tragedian imprisoned in a clown's mask. When he cried, the tears ran down cheeks creased in a permament smile.

On the other hand, the clown of the playground was a hollow-faced little fellow with mournful dark eyes who looked a bit like Buster Keaton. He was almost as funny, even though his very hair looked sad.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the people who have been given their expression by nature, there are the actors. Take, for instance, the Tough Guy who discovers, in the interest of being a successful bully, that he must look the part. And so he scowls and makes his eyes mean and presses his mouth into a ruthless slit.Like the Friendly Person who smiles and smiles, it is never clear whether the Tough Guy is expressing his feeling or putting on an act.

The more civilized society becomes, alas, the more any expression is likely to be a mask -- the fact at the dinner party assuming a cliche of rapt wonder, say, that is not only unfelt but may be a disguise for boredom. And so facial expressions, like everything else, become political.

Professor Ekman has been approached by the FBI and the Department of Defense and (he believes) the CIA, all fascinated by practical applications of the Facial Action Coding System. The suspected CIA representatives asked: Could FACS, as it is known, detect double agents by their duplicitous expressions? To his great credit, Professor Ekman was quick to answer that FACS could not. But this sort of naivete puts chills down the spine.

Will the personnel departments of big corporations codify the eyebrow positions that recommend a job applicant as a subsevient workaholic? Will government loyalty tests be conducted according to a certain jaw ripple that does, or does not, occur when the National Anthem is played?

And we haven't even considered the high incidence of accidental expressions: the man who looks puzzled because he's squinting into the sun, the woman who looks disapproving because she's sucking a lemon drop.

The human face, we maintain, is not a mass-produced social reflex but an individualist, an improviser, even a rebel against itself. And have we ever got the confused wrinkles to prove it!

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Is your face an open book?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today