Sunday , 18 August 2019

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The Universal Language of Facial Expressions

Duchenne markers around the eye area make people seem more sincere and intense.

Photographers and songwriters have long known that the wrinkles around someone’s eyes are a universal way to convey emotional intensity and gritty authenticity. In the iconic 1936 photo of Florence Owens Thompson known as “Migrant Mother (link is external),” Dorothea Lange conveyed the hardship and suffering of the Great Depression in a single frame that exemplifies what psychological scientists call the “Duchenne marker” of eye wrinkles.

Duchenne wrinkles are caused by facial muscles in the eye region (orbicularis oculi) that are involved in multiple facial expressions including both “laugh-lines” associated with exuberance and joy or creases near the eyes that convey sadness and pain.

Bruce Springsteen intuitively taps into the timeless and universal power of the “Duchenne marker” in his song, “Racing in the Street (link is external),” when he describes the heartbreak of watching his high school sweetheart grow older and bitter. In the most poignant part of this song, Springsteen sings, “But now there’s wrinkles ’round my baby’s eyes. And she cries herself to sleep at night. When I come home, the house is dark. She sighs, “Baby, did you make it all right?” She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house, but all her pretty dreams are torn. She stares off alone into the night, with the eyes of one who hates for just being born.”

In the early-20th century, Italian physician and educator, Maria Montessori (link is external), realized the importance of studying facial wrinkles. She said, “The study of expression ought to form a part of the study of psychology, but it also comes within the province of anthropology because the habitual, life-long expressions of the face determine the wrinkles of old age, which are distinctly an anthropological characteristic.”

A new study of facial expressions uses 21st-century technology to update Montessori’s observations from a century ago. Using a state-of-the-art technique called “binocular rivalry,” researchers have found that the human brain is pre-wired to view wrinkles around the eyes as the key to conveying sincere and intense emotions of both happiness and sorrow.

This research was conducted by an international team that included the University of Miami Psychology Professor Daniel Messinger (link is external), principal investigator Julio Martinez-Trujillo (link is external) of Western University’s Cognitive Neurophysiology Laboratory, along with first author Nour Malek (link is external) of McGill University, and other collaborators. Their paper, “Generalizing Duchenne to Sad Expressions with Binocular Rivalry and Perception Ratings (link is external),” is currently in press and will be published in the journal Emotion.

In a statement, Malek said, “These findings provide evidence of a potential universal language for reading emotions. In other words, a given facial action may have a single role across multiple facial expressions—especially if that facial action shapes your social interactions. For example, knowing if a stranger’s smile is genuine and whether that person can be trusted, warns you whether you should evade or not.”

The researchers describe their visual rivalry technique as “a window into the unconscious.” During binocular visual rivalry, study participants are shown different images in the left and right eye. As the brain struggles to process two slightly different images, it automatically chooses one image to be the primary focus of perceptual awareness. This automatic decision-making process subliminally unearths what someone’s brain involuntarily perceives as being the more relevant or important image.

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