Improving Your Brain Tools: Reading Emotional Messages in the Face

Mona LisaAlvaro and I attend­ed a great work­shop this week­end at the Spir­it Rock Med­i­ta­tion Cen­ter in Woodacre, Cal­i­for­nia. The class was called “Read­ing Emo­tion­al Mes­sages” and taught by Paul Ekman, Ph.D.

Con­cealed emo­tions, microex­pres­sions, are the fleet­ing expres­sions that peo­ple make when they are con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly try­ing to hide their true emo­tion­al response. In con­scious microex­pres­sions they may be try­ing to lie, while with uncon­scious expres­sions, they may not even be aware of what they are tru­ly feel­ing. Ekman has made a study of these microex­pres­sions and can pro­vide you the train­ing you need to rec­og­nize them, and the coun­sel­ing you need on how to use that insight appro­pri­ate­ly. Accord­ing to Ekman, “These expres­sions tend to be very extreme and very fast. Eighty to 90 per­cent of peo­ple we test­ed don’t see them.”

Ekman was a Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­o­gy in the Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia at San Fran­cis­co for 32 years. His orig­i­nal focus was on “non­ver­bal” behav­ior, and by the mid-60s, he con­cen­trat­ed on the expres­sion and phys­i­ol­o­gy of emo­tion. He has devel­oped a sec­ondary inter­est in inter­per­son­al decep­tion as well. Per­haps his most famous pub­li­ca­tion is the The Facial Action Cod­ing Sys­tem (FACS) which is used by law enforce­ment and intel­li­gence agen­cies every­where, as well as par­ents and ther­a­pists who want to be able to under­stand peo­ple around them better.

With my chil­dren, spouse, friends and work asso­ciates, if I don’t under­stand how they’re feel­ing — either about me or about (things) that may have noth­ing to do with me when we inter­act — then I’m not going to have a very use­ful exchange with them,” Ekman said.

In the 60s and 70s when Ekman began look­ing into the uni­ver­sal­i­ty of facial expres­sions, all the major con­tem­po­rary social sci­en­tists, like Mar­garet Mead, believed that expres­sions were cul­tur­al­ly learned, not innate. He pro­ceed­ed to trav­el all over the world with pic­tures of peo­ple mak­ing dis­tinct facial expres­sions and found peo­ple in cul­tures every­where, from mod­ern to stone age, agreed on the emo­tion behind the expres­sion. He then turned to study­ing the pro­duc­tion of these expres­sions and the 43 facial mus­cles that can cre­ate 10,000 expres­sions, which form the basis of his training.

He found sev­en uni­ver­sal emo­tions with unique facial expres­sion. The emo­tions are: anger, fear, sad­ness, dis­gust, hap­pi­ness, sur­prise, and con­tempt. At least five of these are shared with non-human pri­mates as well. Inter­est­ing­ly, the smile is the eas­i­est expres­sion to rec­og­nize, and the eas­i­est to iden­ti­fy from afar. These emo­tions have a spe­cif­ic trig­ger, come quick­ly with­out thought, and inter­act with your phys­i­ol­o­gy — mean­ing mere­ly mak­ing the fear expres­sion will cre­ate a fear response in your body as well. With fear, neu­rons will sig­nal your body to pre­pare to flee by send­ing blood to the large vol­un­tary mus­cles in your legs. In anger, on the oth­er hand, your brain sig­nals your body to fight by send­ing blood to your hands. Try prac­tic­ing on your­self: can you feel a change in your emo­tion­al state by mak­ing changes in your facial expression?

Emo­tions have dis­tinct trig­gers and learn­ing those trig­gers is an impor­tant step in under­stand­ing your own emo­tions and why you respond the way you do. To date, the best way to learn to rec­og­nize the the impulse that was trig­gered before the aware­ness of the emo­tion is con­tem­pla­tive prac­tice (med­i­ta­tion). Also, an impor­tant point to clar­i­fy, emo­tions are not moods, which are longer affec­tive expe­ri­ences have an unclear trig­ger (you may not be sure what sparked the mood you’re in) and tend to fil­ter your view of the environment.

More Infor­ma­tion
Online Facial Expres­sions Test based on the MicroEx­pres­sion Train­ing Tools devel­oped by Ekman
The Naked Face” by Mal­colm Glad­well, The New York­er, August 5, 2002
What a Half-Smile Real­ly Means” by Kim Zetter, Wired, Sep­tem­ber 2, 2003
Paul Ekman, Ph.D. Com­plete Bibliography
MicroEx­pres­sion Train­ing Tools (METT) and Sub­tle Expres­sion Train­ing Tools (SETT)
Oth­er class­es at Spir­it Rock
Ekman at The Dalai Lama Cen­ter for Peace and Education
The Mind and Life Institute
Emo­tions and Faces: Part of Exec­u­tive Intelligence


  1. - Positive Psychology Blog on January 16, 2007 at 7:43

    Hi Car­o­line, Hi Alvaro — 

    Very glad you liked Ekman’s talk. I find his research to be soooo inter­est­ing. Here’s a quiz I got over email today that made me this of this blog post — how good are you at telling what a per­son means through their eyes?


  2. Caroline on January 16, 2007 at 11:51

    Fun link Senia! I’m afraid I do much bet­ter with the whole face than I do with just the eyes. More train­ing for me!

  3. Ellen Weber on January 17, 2007 at 5:00

    Great site — and I am glad to have found where you folks moved. It’s hard to keep up with pro­gres­sive brain folks — but I am glad we caught up again. I’ll change your site on my Blog Roll back at and look for­ward to read­ing your great insights! Stay well!

  4. Caroline on January 17, 2007 at 5:24

    Thanks Ellen! Def­i­nite­ly glad to be recon­nect­ed! We’ll keep vis­it­ing you as well.

  5. Lisa on January 22, 2007 at 6:56

    Wow, that is so inter­est­ing. We real­ly can’t hide our emo­tions, they are writ­ten all over our face. 

    Here via the car­ni­val of fam­i­ly life.

  6. Caroline on January 23, 2007 at 11:04

    Lisa — Glad you enjoyed the post. Inter­est­ing­ly, Dr. Ekman also spent a lot of time talk­ing about the respon­si­bil­i­ty of being eth­i­cal in your choice to use (or how to use) the infor­ma­tion you get from some­one’s face. If it was­n’t offered to you, how should you use that information?

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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