Face facts

I still remember the first time I encountered the teachings of Paul Ekman, through a Malcolm Gladwell article titled The Naked Face in The New Yorker.  The idea was compelling: the human face, through a series of involuntary micro-expressions, revealed underlying emotions in a universal manner, across people of all races and backgrounds.

I briefly considered sending away for a Facial Action Coding System training kit which, at the time, was hundreds of dollars (training tools are available for much cheaper now). I thought it would turn me into some human lie detector, a monster at the poker table. Ekman's system even inspired a TV show, and he has consulted with a whole slew of government agencies, from the CIA and FBI to the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA.

But now, decades after the theory rose to prominence, it has come under fire. Lisa Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern, has challenged Ekman's findings and theory.

She returned to those famous cross-cultural studies that had launched Ekman’s career—and found that they were less than watertight. The problem was the options that Ekman had given his subjects when asking them to identify the emotions shown on the faces they were presented with. Those options, Barrett discovered, had limited the ways in which people allowed themselves to think.

Barrett explained the problem to me this way: “I can break that experiment really easily, just by removing the words. I can just show you a face and ask how this person feels. Or I can show you two faces, two scowling faces, and I can say, ‘Do these people feel the same thing?’ And agreement drops into the toilet.”

More importantly... 

That, Barrett told me, is what the mind does with emotions. Just as that first picture of the bee actually wasn’t a picture of a bee for me until I taught myself that it was, my emotions aren’t actually emotions until I’ve taught myself to think of them that way. Without that, I have only a meaningless mishmash of information about what I’m feeling. In other words, as Barrett put it to me, emotion isn’t a simple reflex or a bodily state that’s hard-wired into our DNA, and it’s certainly not universally expressed. It’s a contingent act of perception that makes sense of the information coming in from the world around you, how your body is feeling in the moment, and everything you’ve ever been taught to understand as emotion. Culture to culture, person to person even, it’s never quite the same. What’s felt as sadness in one person might as easily be felt as weariness in another, or frustration in someone else.

So there’s no such thing as a basic emotion? It sounds crazy. But this is where all sorts of brain science is headed. Researchers once assumed that the brain stored specific memories, but now they’ve realized that there is no such stash to be found. Memories, the new science suggests, are actually reconstructed anew every time we access them, and appear to us a little differently each time, depending on what’s happened since. Vision works in a similar way. The brain, it turns out, doesn’t consciously process every single piece of information that comes its way. Think of how impossibly distracting the regular act of blinking would be if it did. Instead, it pays attention to what you need to pay attention to, then raids your memory stores to fill in the blanks.

The idea that emotion is a human construction, if true, is hugely important. It opens the possibility that people can teach themselves to react differently to different situations by teaching yourself to process your bodily feelings in specific ways. If emotion comes in the interpretation and not directly from physical reaction, there is a gap between the two in which you can choose the emotional outcome.  

This may be why some people react differently to different situations like adversity. Perhaps their bodies feel it the same way, but one person chooses a different emotional manifestation or outcome than the other.

Of course, even before I read the article on Barrett, I had heard of a theory that indirectly challenged Ekman's theories in a more populist manner. Yes, I'm referring to the phenomenon forever to be known as Bitchy Resting Face.  What you read as bitchiness might merely be the default facial expression when a person is feeling no emotion in particular.