The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Facial Expression

I will often fly great distances to meet someone face to face . . . . --Mark H. McCormack (What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School, 1984:9)

Sign. The act of communicating a mood, attitude, opinion, feeling, or other message by contracting the muscles of the face.

Usage: The combined expressive force of our mobile chin, lip, cheek, eye, and brow muscles is without peer in the animal kingdom. Better than any body parts, our faces revealemotions, opinions, and moods. While we learn to manipulate some expressions (see, e.g., SMILE), many unconscious facial expressions (see, e.g., LIP-POUTTENSE-MOUTH, and TONGUE-SHOW) reflect our true feelings and hidden attitudes. Many facial expressions are universal, though most may be shaped by cultural usages and rules (see below,Culture).

Summary of facial expressions. 1. Nose: nostril flare (arousal). 2. Lips: grin (happiness, affiliation, contentment); grimace (fear); lip-compression (anger, emotion, frustration); canine snarl (disgust); lip-pout (sadness, submission, uncertainty); lip-purse (disagree); sneer (contempt; see below, Sneer). 3. Brows: frown (anger, sadness, concentration); brow-raise(intensity). 4. Tongue: tongue-show (dislike, disagree). 5. Eyelids: flashbulb eyes (surprise); widened (excitement, surprise); narrowed (threat, disagreement); fast-blink (arousal);normal-blink (relaxed). 6. Eyes: big pupils (arousal, fight-or-flight); small pupils (rest-and-digest); direct-gaze (affiliate, threaten); gaze cut-off (dislike, disagree); gaze-down(submission, deception); CLEMS (thought processing). (NOTE: See individual entries elsewhere in The Nonverbal Dictionary.)

Child development. ". . . all children, regardless of cultural background, show the same maturation process when it comes to the basic emotional expressions [e.g., of anger, fear, and joy]" (Burgoon et al. 1989:350; see below, RESEARCH REPORTS).

Culture. "Japanese are taught to mask negative facial expressions with smiles and laughter and to display less facial affect overall, leading some Westerners to consider the Japanese inscrutable (Friesen, 1972; Morsbach, 1973; Ramsey, 1983)" (Burgoon et al. 1989:193).

Embryology. The nerves and muscles that open and close our mouth derive from the 1st pharyngeal arch, while those that constrict our throat derive from the 3rd and 4th arches. In the disgusted or "yuck-face," cranial VII contracts orbital muscles to narrow our eyes, as well as corrugator and associated muscle groups to lower our brows. (Each of these muscles and nerves derives from the 2nd pharyngeal arch.) We may express positive, friendly, and confident moods by dilating our eye, nose, throat, and mouth openings--or we may show negative and anxious feelings (as well as inferiority) by constricting them. Thus, the underlying principle of movement established in the jawless fishes long ago remains much the same today: Unpleasant emotions and stimuli lead cranial nerves to constrict our eye, nose, mouth, and throat openings, while more pleasant sensations widen our facial orifices to incoming cues.

Evolution I. During the Jurassic period mammalian faces gradually became more mobile (and far more expressive) than the rigid faces of reptiles. Muscles which earlier controlled the pharyngeal arches (i.e., the primitive "gill" openings) came to move mammalian lips, muzzles, scalps, and external ear flaps. Nerve links from the emotional limbic system to the facial muscles--routed through the brain stem's facial and trigeminal nerves (cranial VII and V)--enable us to express joyfearsadnesssurpriseinterestanger, and disgusttoday.

Evolution II. That a nose-stinging whiff of ammonium carbonate can cause our face to close up in disgust shows how facial expression, smell, and taste are linked. The connection traces back to the ancient muscles and nerves of the pharyngeal arches of our remote Silurian ancestors. Pharyngeal arches were part of the feeding and breathing apparatus of the jawless fishes; sea water was pumped in and out of the early pharynx through a series of gill slits at the animal's head end. Each arch contained a visceral nerve and a somatic muscleto close the gill opening in case dangerous chemicals were sensed. Very early in Nonverbal World, pharyngeal arches were programmed to constrict in response to noxious tastes and smells.

Gag reflex. The ancient pattern is reflected in our faces today. In infants, e.g., a bitter taste shows in lowered browsnarrowed eyes, and a protruded tongue--the yuck-face expression pictured on poison-warning labels. A bad flavor causes baby to seal off her throat and oral cavity as cranial nerves IX and X activate the pharyngeal gag reflex. Cranial Vdepresses the lower jaw to expel the unpleasant mouthful (then closes it to keep food out), as cranial XII protrudes the tongue.

Gender differences. "Not surprisingly, women have a general superiority over men when it comes to decoding facial expressions . . ." (Burgoon et al. 1989:360).

Mimicking. Research indicates that mimicking another's face elicits empathy (Berstein et al., 2000).

Primatology. 1. In our closest primate relatives, the Old World monkeys and apes, the following facial expressions have been identified: alert face, bared-teeth gecker face, frowning bared-teeth scream face, lip-smacking face, pout face, protruded-lips face, relaxed face, relaxed open-mouth face, silent bared-teeth face, staring bared-teeth scream face, staring open-mouth face, teeth-chattering face, and tense-mouth face (Van Hooff 1967). 2. "Andrew (1963, 1965) held that facial expressions were originally natural physical response to stimuli. As these responses became endowed with the function of communication, they survived the various stages of evolution and were passed along to man" (Izard 1971:38; cf.NONVERBAL INDEPENDENCE).

Sneer. In the sneer, buccinator muscles (innervated by lower buccal branches of the facial nerve) contract to draw the lip corners sideward to produce a sneering "dimple" in the cheeks (the sneer may also be accompanied by a scornful, upward eye-roll). From videotape studies of nearly 700 married couples in sessions discussing their emotional relationships with each other, University of Washington psychologist, John Gottman has found the sneer expression (even fleeting episodes of the cue) to be a "potent signal" for predicting the likelihood of future marital disintegration (Bates and Cleese 2001). In this regard, the sneer may be decoded as an unconscious sign of contempt. 

RESEARCH REPORTS: So closely is emotion tied to facial expression that it is hard to imagine one without the other. 1. The first major scientific study of facial communication was published by Charles Darwin in 1872. Darwin concluded that many expressions and their meanings (e.g., for astonishmentshamefearhorrorpridehatredwrathlovejoy,guiltanxietyshyness, and modesty) are universal: "I have endeavoured to show in considerable detail that all the chief expressions exhibited by man are the same throughout the world" (Darwin 1872:355). 2. Sylvan S. Tomkins found eight "basic" facial emotions: surpriseinterestjoyragefeardisgustshame and anguish (Tomkins 1962; Carroll Izard proposed a similar set of eight [Izard 1977]). 3. Studies indicate that the facial expressions of happinesssadnessangerfear, surprise, disgust, and interest are universal across cultures (Ekman and Friesen 1971). 4. ". . . the emotion process includes a motor component subserved by innate neural programs which give rise to universal facial patterns. These patterns are subject to repression, suppression, and other consequences of socialization during childhood and adolescence" (Izard 1971:78).

E-Commentary IThe face entranced. "I have observed that when a woman absent-mindedly knots a lock of her hair on a finger or twists her ring on her finger, she often displays a trance like facial expression--i.e., her glance seems to look far away, her face has no expression, the right and left sides of her face are more symmetrical, she slows or loses her eye-blink, her pupils dilate, she half-opens her mouth as her chin falls down (her jaw appears relaxed), and her body appears fairly passive or motionless. I have seen the same nonverbal pattern in men, as well." --Dr. Marco Pacori, Institute of Analogic Psychology, Milano, Italy (3/29/00 9:17:37 AM Pacific Standard Time)

E-Commentary II: "I am looking for help in analyzing the natural expression on my face. I'm a 52 year old male and I believe others sense my facial expression as one of being angry when I'm not the least bit angry. I believe that it severely limits healthy relationships as well as my income. (I talk to people all day in sales.) Although my mate and I are very happy, I'm looking for a change, but don't know where to start. --R. C. (9/10/01 8:01:23 PM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes I1. The facial nerve nucleus of the brain stem contains motor neurons that innervate the facial muscles of expression (Willis 1998F). 2. "The facial muscles and the facial nerve and its various branches constitute the most highly differentiated and versatile set of neuromuscular mechanisms in man" (Izard 1971:52). 

Neuro-notes II. "The homologue of Broca's area in nonhuman primates is the part of the lower precentral cortex that is the primary motor area for facial musculature. . . . electrical stimulation of this area in squirrel monkeys . . . yields isolated movements of the monkey's lips and tongue and some laryngeal activity but no complete vocalizations" (Lieberman 1991:106; see SPEECH).

Neuro-notes III1. "The facial nucleus [of the albino rat] contains numerous medium-caliber, intensely immunoreactive dynorphin fibers, especially in the intermediate subdivision of the nucleus . . ." (Fallon and Ciofi 1990:31). 2. "The functions of these projections are unknown, but it is likely that dynorphin and enkephalin would modulate motor neurons enervating the facial musculature, especially those in the intermediate division controlling the zygomatic, platysma and mentalis muscles" (Fallon and Ciofi 1990:31-2).
Neuro-notes IV. Mirror-neuron properties for perceiving and creating facial expressions are found in the inferior parietal lobe (IPL: involved in tool usage and perception of emotions in facial expressions), frontal operculum (fO: involved in cognitive and perceptual motor processing), and premotor cortex (involved in spatial and sensory guidance of movement, and in understanding the movements of others) (Haxby and Gobbini 2011:101). "Facial expressions contain both motor and emotional components. The inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and posterior parietal cortex have been considered to compose a mirror neuron system (MNS) for the motor components of facial expressions, while the amygdala and insula may represent an 'additional' MNS for emotional states" [van der Gaag, C., Minderaa, R. B., and C. Keysers, "Facial Expressions: What the Mirror Neuron System Can and Cannot Tell Us," Social Neuroscience, 2007; 2(3-4):179-222].
Neuro-notes V. The amygdala responds most strongly to viewed facial expressions of fear, while the anterior insula responds to viewed facial expressions of disgust (Haxby and Gobbini 2011:102). "The activity in these areas suggests that understanding the emotional meaning of expressions involves evoking the emotion itself--a simulation or mirroring of another's emotion that is analogous to the putative role of the hMNS [human mirror neuron system] in simulating or mirroring the motor actions of another" (Haxby and Gobbini 2011:102).
See also BLANK FACE.

Detail of photo showing contraction of depressor anguli oris (pulling down lip corners [in sadness]) and mentalis muscles (dimpling chin [in lip-pout]; mentalis protrudes and everts the lower lip; the dimpled-chin expression correlates well with doubt, disdain, and negative emotions [picture copyright 1949 by The Williams and Wilkins Co.])