Works in Progress - Spring 2011

Fix Ya Face

By Darcy Courteau | June 13, 2013


Emotions, we imagine, are private, visceral, and uncultivated. “Bull,” says theoretical neuroscientist Mark Changizi—or rather, emotional expression is “bull,” the carefully measured fluff we display for others. Author of three books focusing on why rather than how humans are structured to see color or, say, listen to music, Changizi will argue in his next study, “Making Faces,” that facial expressions primarily function to demonstrate status within a group.

“There are six basic emotions,” says Changizi, director of human cognition at the nonprofit 2AI Labs in Boise, Idaho; each has an opposite. Happiness and surprise convey straightforward information, but anger and sadness show emoters’ estimation of their own strength or weakness. For instance, the scowl on a traffic court official may not be a symptom of his inner rage, but rather a way he shows his relative strength as well as the degree of respect he expects. On the opposite end of the spectrum, crying shows that you understand your role: weak.

Variants of the six emotions constantly motivate our faces to show others that we know our place. Disgust, a “you are weak” emotion, manifests with an upturned nose; its opposite, fear (“you are strong”) is shown by a downturned nose. Facial expressions, however, not only communicate with others, but also give the wearer constant feedback. How? Changizi contends that our eyes are set deeply enough so that we can see parts of our own faces—cheeks, eyebrows, and nose—which means we can fine-tune our feelings. (Blind persons, of course, must rely on other means.)

Has an emotion ever confounded Changizi? Yes, he admits. Right now he’s working on angry pouting.

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