Why the long face?

Claire Keogh examines the evolution of facial expression and involuntary communication

Facial expressions are used by people to convey various types of meaning in different contexts. The range of purposes spans basic possible innate socio-emotional concepts such as ‘surprise’ to elaborate and culture-specific ideas such as ‘careless’.
Of course, facial expressions and emotions may happen without any particular purpose of the person communicating, and this can be picked up on by other people. As a result, the suggestion of facial expression exists.

Humans perceive facial expressions as conveying meaning, but it is necessary to find out where they come from and what exactly they mean. Observations around facial expressions were first associated with pre-Darwinian emotions. These hypothesised that they must have had some instrumental purpose in evolutionary history. Darwin mentioned that, for example, lifting the eyebrows might have helped our ancestors respond to unexpected environmental events by widening the visual field and therefore enabling a person to see more.

Even though their instrumental function of this may well no longer exist, the facial expression remains in humans as part of our biological endowment. Therefore, we still lift our eyebrows when an unusual event happens in the environment, whether seeing more is of any value or not.

Consciously or not people communicate verbally and non-verbally. Besides, they communicate with their facial language and expressions, and it is possible to elicit meaning from this. There are a set of natural facial expressions, and they mean that the person making a face and the facial expression is experiencing an emotion or reaction.
As mentioned, the brow-raising means feeling surprised, but the effect may be to enable them to widen their field of vision. A person interviewing such a person who feels surprised, say, may elicit an additional set of questions in his or her mind upon observing the emotion. And these types of observations can have wider-ranging ways of finding extra information from the source of the communication, for example, the interviewee.

Some theorists have said that there are culturally acquired facial expressions used to modulate the innate emotional feelings, meaning display rules, and also others used for communication. There can be an eyebrow flash, for instance, used to indicate ‘hello’. Also, eyebrow movements during speech can emphasise specific words. These can be picked up on by an observant person.

According to this view, some facial expressions can be read-outs of internal psychological moods. The fact that they have a meaning to the observer is incidental. Others are explicitly used for communication and in some ways are thus intentionally meaningful, for the acute observer, even silence can have distinct meanings.
The subtext of a person’s communication patterns, together with pauses and inflexions in the way a person speaks can also give certain clues. Neuro-linguistic programming, which is a form of psychological study, can partially explain these matters.

Some theorists would say that there are no read-outs of inner emotional states. Instead, what we usually regard as emotional expressions evolved to communicate intentions. That is to say, raised eyebrows may not necessarily mean ‘I am surprised’ but might mean ‘Something happened. I’m going to find out what’.

All facial expressions evolved for informative purposes, and they require contextual analysis. What the pauses are, and what is not said through facial communication, can be critical. Brow-raising marks conditional clauses; these facial expressions are communicative, and they combine to form meaningful movements with the hands, for example.
There is also evidence that facial expressions mean things which range from possibly universal messages to culture-specific learned meanings. ‘Hello’, for example, can be to culture-specific purposes what can take part in larger composite structures. This would be with other meaningful elements such as the conditional clause marker in sign languages. However, there are an extensive range of meanings and uses in facial expressions.

These can be analysed with the same sort of semantic conviction used to interpret words, and two further working assumptions that we adopt can include that some facial configurations of identifiable contexts have independent meanings. Some facial expressions, for example, have a universal meaning interpretable which are inter-cultural.
Various theorists have previously made some of these assumptions, although, they may limit this claim to facial expressions used.

In general, a strong argument applies that some facial expressions are innate because people born blind also produce them. People such as these did not have the advantage of having seen other people use these types of facial expressions and picked up on the form of expression to convey meaning in the way they communicate. Other cross-cultural and diverse groups may use facial expressions differently – therefore it is usually necessary to get a fuller picture before drawing conclusions.

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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