Microexpressions can sneak up when you least expect it!

March 21, 2012 by VisualEmotion LLC  
Filed under Facial Movements

Watch this video carefully and see if you can spot the microexpression of disgust that Dr. Tendler leaks in this Restasis commercial. (youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OB9tO_VD8d4)

Restasis: Ask Dr. Tendler
The microexpression while extremely brief and fleeting reveals some important information about how Dr. Tendler feels. We do not and cannot exactly know the cause of the microexpression without engaging Dr. Tendler in conversation and probing into the topic that appears to have spurred the emotional reaction but there is still important information that we can glean from seeing a microexpression. By the way it appears at 0:34 in case you didn’t catch it. At the most fundamental level, Dr. Tendler is revealing to us as observers that she is suppressing feelings of disgust. A micro expression is an emotional response that often occurs without our conscious awareness and reveals a person’s actual internal state. The microexpression paired with the verbal content of the expressor can carry an important message to the engaged or casual observer.
Another critical piece of information that we gain from spotting this microexpression of disgust is that universally, disgust signals internally to us and externally to others that there is something offensive or contaminating in our midst. With disgust unlike the emotion of contempt, the object of disgust could be just about anything, such as the sight of something revolting, the smell, the sound, the touch, a thought or the feel of something and it equally applies to other people, their thoughts, ideals and morals. Disgust can be a reaction to virtually anything that can be viewed as harmful and contaminating physically, emotionally, intellectually and morally.
Emotional responses occur without our conscious control through what is called an automatic appraisal system. The appraisal system is a highly functional process in our brain that scans our surroundings and assesses all of the available sensory stimuli through sights, sounds, smells, etc and when necessary triggers an emotional response. In other words, there is an auto-pilot inside our brains filtering and prioritizing information and stirring us to action. Yes, emotions motivate us to act or react, whether it be to protect us from harm or to pursue what makes us happy.
But emotions can also be triggered by a more reflective process whereby an individual works through a cognitively driven appraisal process of the situation at hand. The assessment is one that focuses on how if at all the object or person is affecting me either personally or through my experience indicating that a lack of emotional response can be equally telling as having an emotional response. Ultimately our actions are driven by either the automatic or cognitive appraisal system through which we evaluate and make decisions, some of which are in our control while others are impulse-like due to the very nature of the speed by which they are triggered.
When emotions are intense, they are likely to create visible changes in behavior that are indicative of the particular emotion that is being experienced. Facial expressions like the one in the Restasis commercial have been found to be one of the most accurate cues to emotional experiences because at least for the 7 basic emotions, happiness, surprise, contempt, fear, anger, sadness and disgust there are universal expressions that are unique to each of these emotions making them reliable and universally understandable.

Special thanks to Jeff Thompson (www.nonverbalphd.com) for spotting this expression and sharing it!

Can Posing a Smile Make You Happier?

March 18, 2011 by VisualEmotion LLC  
Filed under Facial Movements

As most of us know and probably experience on a daily basis, facial expressions of emotion can be displayed in two ways; involuntarily triggered by our autonomic nervous system in response to stimuli or voluntarily by simply posing an expression of emotion. According to facial feedback theory, simply contracting our facial muscles in to an expression can influence our emotional experience. In other words, when we smile we experience pleasure, when we frown we experience sadness and so on.

Research performed by Strack, Martin & Stepper (1988) set out to test the facial feedback theory. The researchers compared three groups of people and their assessment of the funniness of a cartoon. Each group was assigned to hold a pen, one group was told to hold a pen in their mouth by using only their lips, the second group was told to hold a pen in their mouth using their teeth and the control group was asked to hold the pen in their non-dominant hand. The group holding the pen using their teeth naturally assumed an expression that forced the contraction of the zygomaticus major which is the muscle used in posing a smile. The participants in the lip position were naturally forced to compress their lips thus preventing a smile-like expression and to some degree their expression resulted in a frown. As the facial feedback theory purports, the group in the smiling position (pen held by teeth) reported the cartoon as significantly more amusing then the participants in the pen held by lips and pen held in non-dominant hand groups.

What are the implications of such findings you may wonder?

For one, the next time you are feeling sad or perhaps slightly depressed, try putting on a smile and hold that smile for a longer period of time. According to the facial feedback theory, this exercise should help you start feeling better from the inside out.

Another application of this phenomenon is being used by mental health practitioners. Depression is one of the most prominent mental health issues in society today. While many treatments exist of which most are drug related, some mental health professionals support alternative methods to at least achieve short term benefits. One such strategy is to smile and to laugh. The suggested benefits of smiling include an increase of endorphins, stimulation of the immune system, lowering of stress and blood pressure. It is unclear whether all types of smiles produce the same effects or whether only a genuine (Duchenne) smile can create these positive effects.

While the final verdict is still out on whether facial feedback does in fact trigger emotional reactions, smiling doesn’t hurt so go ahead and try it – let us know if it works for you!

The Effects of Botox on Emotion Processing

February 3, 2011 by VisualEmotion LLC  
Filed under Facial Movements

In the September 2010 issue of Elle Magazine, actress Julia Roberts spoke out about her refusal to use botox to smooth the wrinkles on her face. She was quoted saying:

“It’s unfortunate that we live in such a panicked, dysmorphic society where women don’t even give themselves a chance to see what they’ll look like as older persons. I want to have some idea of what I’ll look like before I start cleaning the slates. I want my kids to know when I’m pissed, when I’m happy, and when I’m confounded. Your face tells a story… and it shouldn’t be a story about your drive to the doctor’s office.”

Botox is a type of nerve poison used to paralyze muscles in the face and thus restrict muscle movement that could cause wrinkles. Emotions evoke muscle movement in the face, so would restricting facial muscle movement affect emotions in some way? A study by Havas reveals that restricting facial muscle movement can affect how a person understands language related to emotion.

Wrinkles from frowning brow

Wrinkles from frowning brow

In the study, botox was injected into the corrugator muscles of 40 participants. The corrugator muscle is responsible for causing the center part of the forehead between the eyebrows to wrinkle. This wrinkling in the forehead, in turn, is a main component in expressing anger or distress. Participants were then asked to read statements written to evoke happiness, sadness, or anger before and after they were injected. The results showed that after the participants received the botox, they spent more time reading the statements that were sad or angry, while there was no difference in time spent reading the happiness statement. Although the time change was small, the study showed that restricting the corrugator muscle made it more difficult to interpret anger and sadness. A possible explanation for the lapse in interpretation is that the restriction of the corrugator muscle disrupted a message between the face and the brain, which would otherwise link the emotion to the muscle movement.


Restricting muscle movement in the face can affect a person’s ability to process emotional stimuli. The side effects of an inhibited corrugators muscle includes a decreased understanding of communicated sadness and anger or on a more positive note, it may make people happier because anger and sadness become less apparent. Regardless of the outcome, it is important to know that people who use botox or cosmetic-surgery to reduce wrinkling in the face are not only altering their self-image but also how their brain processes emotion.


Facial and Vocal Cues to Emotion

February 2, 2011 by VisualEmotion LLC  
Filed under Facial Movements

Researchers have collected a significant amount of data by tracking people’s eye movements when scanning the face for emotion. It is sometimes easy to forget though that the voice plays a large part in emotion recognition as well. In fact there are different cues in the voice that are associated with each of the 7 universal emotions. Researcher Akihiro Tanaka wanted to examine how the face and the voice work together to convey emotion, and he found that culture plays a role in how somebody perceives emotion.


Japanese and Dutch participants in the study were asked to watch videos of happy or angry faces while hearing happy or angry voices in Japanese and Dutch. The videos either matched the voices (i.e. happy face with happy voice) or contradicted the voices (i.e. happy face with angry voice). The results showed that the Dutch subjects paid more attention to facial cues to determine which emotion was shown, while the Japanese subjects paid more attention to vocal cues, even when they were told to pay attention to the face and not the voice.


It is common in Japanese culture to refrain from displaying negative emotion outwardly. Dr. Paul Ekman called this display rules. Cultures vary in how and when it is appropriate to display emotion. Thus, many Japanese continue to smile even if they are upset, and since outward displays of emotion can be misleading, the Japanese may pay more attention to the voice because emotion is harder to control in the voice.


Do you have any experiences that could support or refute this claim? Tell us about them and let us know if you pay attention to the voice or the face more for emotion recognition.

Maria Bögerl Case

February 8, 2010 by VisualEmotion LLC  
Filed under Facial Movements

Entführungsfall Maria Bögerl Weinende Familie Bittet um hilfe

This family was pleading for the safe return of their mother/wife prior to finding out last week that Maria Bogerl’s body was discovered near their home on the side of the road. Maria Bogerl’s husband is a prominent banker in Germany, and the kidnappers demanded 300,000 euros ransom. The ransom money was delivered late and the kidnappers were never heard from again.  More details on the case can be found here.
While we still don’t know what exactly happened, there are some interesting behavioral observations that can be made looking at this video. Do you see any significant differences in the facial behavior of the children as opposed to the husband? It is striking how differently the upper face configuration appears in the husband from that of the children. Both of the children maintain a obliquely raised inner brow. The inner brow raise is an involuntary action in most people. 90% of people cannot control this muscle voluntarily but when actual sadness or as in this case distress is felt, the inner brow muscle is involuntarily activated as part of the emotional expression.  Even in situations where people may be trying to hide their emotions, the oblique raising of the inner brows tends to leak in sadness. Both of the children also display droopy eyelids which is common in sadness. The husband notably has a squinting appearance in his eyes as opposed to drooping eye lids.
Of all three the husband certainly shows the most intense contractions in facial expression. In those moments where he breaks down, his cheeks are very high, suggesting a strong contraction in the muscles around the eyes, the lines leading from the nose down to his lip corners are severely deepened. The lips are stretched horizontally and his lower lip is pushed up be the chin boss. All of these characteristics are what we would typically expect to find in a intense feeling of sadness except that he is missing the most reliable sign of all, the obliquely raise inner brows.
Why isn’t the husband displaying the emotion of sadness as would be expected in this situation and as we see in the children? There are certainly a few explanations possible but two that stand out are as follows: 1) Since he is responsible for the ransom being delivered late, he may feel extreme guilt and agony for being responsible for his wife’s death. Agony and intense pain has a different facial configuration and we may see the brows pulled down and together especially during bouts of crying. Or 2) He is putting on a show and cannot fake a full expression of sadness giving us only the partial display as seen in the lower part of his face (remember the part most easily controlled).
Identifying emotions (or lack there of) is a way to find clues that serve to question the situation. We all show the basic emotions of anger, sadness, contempt, disgust, joy, surprise and fear in the same way. However what we become emotional about varies from culture to culture and person to person. While being attuned to facial expressions and emotional leakage can dramatically increase our accuracy of detecting deceit, it is not a full proof method. Always remember that these are clues and not facts.