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Lie to Me, Paul Ekman and Biofeedback

You may have watched the new series Lie To Me, with Tim Roth, based on the work of Paul Ekman.

The sec­ond episode, which you can watch for free via Hulu.com Here, is pret­ty inter­est­ing, but the best part hap­pens in the begin­ning, so you only need to watch a few min­utes to learn why what are called “lie detec­tors” are noth­ing but biofeed­back sys­tems that mea­sure phys­i­o­log­i­cal anx­i­ety.

Biofeed­back can be a very effec­tive train­ing tool for emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion and stress man­age­ment, pre­cise­ly because it enables a faster feed­back-based learn­ing loop. Indeed, we are see­ing a grow­ing num­ber of appli­ca­tions in the mar­ket, with names such as EmWave, StressEras­er, RES­PeR­ATE, Jour­ney to the Wild Divine, and oth­ers.

Sim­ply, don’t believe the tech­nol­o­gy is an effec­tive lie detec­tor.

Car­o­line and I wrote an arti­cle on Paul Ekman’s work a cou­ple of years ago — let me repub­lish it now, giv­en his work has made it all the way to main­stream TV!

braintop Paul Ekman has con­duct­ed exten­sive research on iden­ti­fy­ing emo­tions through facial expres­sions. As part of that research, and as part of the pow­er of dis­ci­pline and train­ing, he learned how to con­scious­ly manip­u­late 42 facial mus­cles, includ­ing many that in most of us are beyond our con­trol, and even aware­ness.

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 trav­eled 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.

Based on pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary research, he found that there are sev­en emo­tions expressed in the face in uni­ver­sal­ly con­sis­tent ways:
— Sad­ness
— Anger
— Sur­prise
— Fear
— Enjoy­ment
— Dis­gust
— Con­tempt

Even more inter­est­ing: accord­ing to his research, feel­ings and facial expres­sions influ­ence each oth­er. This is, not only a sad per­son will nat­u­ral­ly look sad, but a per­son who inten­tion­al­ly smiles will feel more con­tent than a per­son who doesn’t.

You can read his advice on how to rec­og­nize feel­ings in order to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter (opens a PDF doc­u­ment), focused on doc­tor-patient rela­tion­ships but use­ful to every­one (includ­ing patients who may want to make sure to get their point across).

Ques­tion: from left to right, top then down, what uni­ver­sal feel­ing does each face indi­cate?

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