Blink

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I wrote a while back about thin-slicing. I have nearly finished Gladwell’s book on rapid cognition. He spends a chapter discussing the face, linking the ability to discern emotional expression as akin to mind-reading: in his words, “the physiological basis of how we thin-slice other people” (213). Face recognition and object recognition are usually handled by two different parts of the brain, respectively the fusiform gyrus and inferior temporal gyrus (219), but more interesting to me are two things: the interplay between voluntary and involuntary facial muscle responses, and the evidence that simply making certain facial expressions generates corresponding physiological states.

All of us can control our expressions to varying degrees, but people exert this control only after our faces have involuntarily displayed our emotional reaction. He describes several examples, including a slow-motion microexpressions of Kato Kaelin looking like “a snarling dog” during the O.J. Simpson trial (211), the smirking double-agent, Harold “Kim” Philby (211-212), “I’m a bad guy” Bill Clinton (205-206), and a psychiatric patient, Mary (208-209), citing research from Paul Ekman, Silvan Tomkins, Wallace Friesen, and Robert Levenson (singly and in various combinations). “We can use our voluntary muscular system to try to suppress those involuntary responses. But, often, some little part of that suppressed emotion – such as the sense that I’m really unhappy even if I deny it – leaks out…Our voluntary expressive system is the way we intentionally signal our emotions. Bur our involuntary expressive system is in many ways even more important: it is the way we have been equipped by evolution to signal our authentic feelings” (210).

The above is based on a summary of research findings that there is a finite number of meaningful expressions and most, if not all, of these are intelligible – as in understood to express similar emotions – across cultures. These findings are gathered in a tool created by Ekman and Frisen called the Facial Action Coding System, now used by computer animators and applied in various kinds of psychological and social research (204-205).

The second point, more fascinating than the first (categorizing is cool, but inducing change is cooler), involves a claim by Ekman “that the information on our face is not just a signal of what is going on inside our mind. In a certain sense, it is what is going on inside our mind” (206, emphasis in original). They tested this claim rather ingeniously. Through some casual experimentation they discovered they could induce the physiological indicators of distress and anger: “As I do it [move specific facial muscles into particular facial expressions],” said Ekman, “I can’t disconnect from the [autonomic nervous] system. It’s very unpleasant, very unpleasant” (207). Two different teams of researchers documented that the pathway of internal emotion stimulus and facial emotional expression works both ways. “These findings may be hard to believe, because we take it as given that first we experience an emotion, and then we may – or may not – express that emotion on our face. We think of the face as the residue of emotion. What this research showed, though, is that the process works in the opposite direction as well. Emotion can also start on the face. The face is not a secondary billboard for our internal feelings. It is an equal partner in the emotional process” (208, emphasis in original).

Claims made by Gladwell are contested by Posner.

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