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Lie to Me: The Biological Basis of Emotion

September 29, 2012, 12:00 AM
Lie

When Paul Ekman looks at you he is invading your privacy. Ekman is an expert at reading so-called micro expressions that reveal what you are thinking and also what you might be trying to conceal. You can imagine how useful this tool is for law enforcement and counterterrorism. That is why Ekman was named by Time magazine as one of the World's 100 Most Influential People. Tim Roth's crime-fighting character in the Fox series Lie to Me was based on Ekman and his work at The Lightman Group. 

And yet, Ekman says anyone can do what he does, and to that end he has made the Micro Expression Training Tool available online. He says 100,000 people have used this tool to learn how to spot concealed emotions. It takes less than an hour. 

What's the Big Idea?

When Charles Darwin made his famous five-year voyage on the Beagle he met many people around the world whose languages he didn’t share and yet he thought he could understand them through their facial expressions.

Darwin could never prove this, but Ekman has. 

In fact, Ekman has found that facial expressions express seven emotions - fear, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, enjoyment, and contempt. These seven emotions individually represent a "family of emotions." In other words, there are many different variations to the type of anger someone might be feeling, and expressing. These emotions and their corresponding micro expressions are shared across cultures. 

Since these expressions show our true emotions, our faces often betray us. So how do we wish to make use of Ekman's tool, and who should make use of it? Ekman says he studies "the lies that society cares about catching and generally disapproves of." After all, we lie most often to avoid punishment for breaking a rule.

Watch the video here:

What's the Significance?

Why was the universality of emotions so important to Charles Darwin? According to Ekman, Darwin thought that shared emotions and expressions demonstrated "the basic humanity" of all human beings. "That’s what links us together," Ekman explains. "That was very important to [Darwin] to counter the racists of his times who were claiming in the 19th century that Caucasians had descended from a more advanced progenitor than Africans."

Darwin published his thoughts in the book The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, published in 1872. Darwin had no evidence to support his claim. That's where Ekman jumped in, and proved the existence of "one of the most important things we all have."

How important are our facial expressions and why did they evolve the way they did? Let's say you are being chased by a saber toothed tiger. "If you had to think about what you were doing," Ekman says, "you’d be dead. So it’s a system that evolved to deal with really important things without your thinking about it."

So how do our facial expressions help us in such an instance? One of Ekman's most important ideas is that the face is not just "a display system" that communicates what we feel, it can also generate emotions. In other words, "if you put on your face one of the universal expressions," Ekman says, "you will turn on the physiology of emotion. You will begin to experience that emotion."

That's not always an easy thing to do. Take enjoyment. A smile alone won't cut it. Ekman says "you have to be able to activate one of the muscles around the eyes and only about ten percent of the people we’ve tested can do it." That's why it is so important that we gain a better awareness of the emotions we are expressing. Consider all of the various ways our expressions impact our everyday interactions. As Ekman tells Big Think:

In any transaction that matters whether it’s between lovers, between parent and child, between salesman and client, between doctor and patient, between suspect and interrogator, between adversaries at an election, emotion is what we’re looking for. Emotions tell us what matters.

Now just imagine when machines get really good at reading our emotions. As Ekman puts it bluntly: "This could be of help. This could be of a lot of harm."

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

 

Lie to Me: The Biological B...

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