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Unveiling the Secrets of Silent Emotions: Deciphering Microexpressions


A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression that appears on a person's face according to the emotions they are experiencing. Unlike regular, prolonged facial expressions, it is difficult to mimic a microexpression.


Hiding the Truth in the Blink of an Eye: Microexpressions

There are seven universal microexpressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. They often occur at speeds of approximately 1/15 to 1/25 of a second (Ekman & O'Sullivan, 1991). The face is the best indicator of a person's emotions, although it is often overlooked. Dr Paul Ekman (1991), a pioneer in the field and the inspiration behind the "Lie to Me" program, conducted groundbreaking research to decipher the code of facial expressions. He demonstrated that facial expressions are universal. In other words, people in the United States look sad for the same reasons (being identified as sad due to similar expressions) as indigenous people in Papua New Guinea, even though the latter have never seen TV or film characters to model themselves after. Additionally, Ekman discovered that individuals who have been blind since birth still exhibit the same facial expressions, even though they have never seen the faces of others. The doctor identified the seven most commonly used and easily interpretable facial expressions. Learning to read them is incredibly useful for understanding people in our lives. Understanding facial expressions is extremely useful for comprehending others in our lives. To practice the skill of reading people's faces, it is important to familiarize oneself with the basic expressions outlined below. Reflecting these expressions in front of a mirror to observe their appearance on one's own face would have an impact. An interesting observation is that mimicking these facial expressions can evoke corresponding emotions within. This highlights the close connection between outward expression and internal experience. Emotions are not only expressed through facial expressions; facial expressions also trigger emotions (Ekman & O'Sullivan, 1991).


Figure 1: The Face of a Leader (Van Edwards, 2016)

Many people, while immersed in a murder mystery film or the depths of a detective novel, try to predict the events and the culprit by analyzing clues. Although it may seem impossible for some to reason and arrive at a conclusion based on narratives, for the curious and observant, it is not difficult. Is it possible to understand people in real life without them speaking? Facial expressions often reveal more to an attentive and educated eye.

Verbal expression is often impressive. However, expressing emotions and thoughts through facial expressions is more realistic. Consider a scenario where a friend contorts their face in a displeased manner while expressing their liking for the meal you prepared. In this situation, the facial expression carries additional weight and significance. When it comes to written expression, especially considering the various sentences that are expressed incorrectly and misunderstood on social media, leading to arguments, emphasizing the need and importance of understanding nonverbal communication becomes inevitable. At this point, it is also possible to say that someone who can understand others through split-second expressions will have an advantage in communication.



Figure 2: Microexpressions (Barbarigos, n.d.)


Microexpressions in History

The use of facial expressions is inevitable wherever humans are present. In this respect, it is appropriate to consider the use of facial expressions at the beginning of human history. From a scientific perspective, although the importance of the history of microexpressions may not be emphasized, notably, in the 18th century, it existed a renowned scientist and mystic named Ibrahim Hakki (1705-1771) from Erzurum. He authored an extensive work known as Marifetname or The Book of Knowledge. Within this work, Ibrahim Hakki dedicated a section to the study of physiognomy. This section encompassed valuable insights on how to draw conclusions about an individual's moral and character traits by analyzing their hair, eyes, ears, hands, head, and overall external appearance. Charles Darwin's book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, published in 1872, which includes universal facial expressions, the muscles used in facial expressions, and similar topics, can also be considered as a starting point for research related to microexpressions.


It is known that microexpressions were discovered for the first time in 1966 by scientists Haggard and Isaacs, who examined camera recordings of doctor-patient dialogues. Later, Haggard and Isaacs published a study titled Microscopic Facial Expressions as an Indicator of Ego Mechanism in Psychotherapy (Haggard & Isaacs, 1966). During the same years, William Condon studied reactions that occur within a quarter of a second and divided a 4.5-second film clip into 1/25-second frames to capture the involuntary hand and shoulder movements that a husband and wife made simultaneously during their conversations.



Figure 3: (Gencraft, Microexpressions on Different Levels, n.d.)

Dr Paul Ekman

Dr Paul Ekman, also known as the "Buddha of Body Language", elevated the knowledge acquired through detailed research in this field. His work served as inspiration for the television series "Lie to Me", which focused on body language and debuted in 2009 (Ekman, 2003). In collaboration with Dr Maureen O'Sullivan, they proposed a new perspective on microexpressions and lie detection studies, which they called the Wizards Project, also known as the Diojen Project. Ekman presented the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), which includes all facial movements and is aimed at understanding human emotions and feelings through facial expressions, and the FACE program on his website for interested individuals and those who need training. He mentioned that many people can improve themselves in this field through education and referred to those with innate abilities as "Truth Wizards" (Ekman & O'Sullivan, 1991; Ekman, n.d.).



According to Ekman (1992), there are 7 universal expressions:

Fear: The facial expression associated with fear typically involves widened eyes, raised eyebrows, and a slightly open mouth. It is often characterized by a look of anticipation or apprehension.


Anger: The expression of anger typically involves narrowed eyes, tense eyebrows, and a tight or clenched jaw. The overall facial expression appears intense and confrontational.


Surprise: The expression of surprise is characterized by wide-open eyes, raised eyebrows, and an open mouth. It reflects a sudden and unexpected reaction to a stimulus or event.


Contempt: Contempt is expressed through a slight curl of the lip on one side of the face, often accompanied by a raised or lowered eyebrow. It conveys a sense of superiority or disdain towards someone or something.


Disgust: The expression of disgust involves wrinkling of the nose, raised upper lip, and a slight narrowing of the eyes. It is typically associated with aversion or revulsion towards something unpleasant.


Sadness: The facial expression of sadness includes drooping or lowered eyebrows, downturned corners of the mouth, and sometimes, tears. It reflects a state of unhappiness or sorrow.


Happiness: The expression of happiness is characterized by a smile, often with raised cheeks and the presence of crow's feet wrinkles around the eyes. It signifies a positive emotional state.



Figure 4 : Universal MicroExpressions (Practical Psychology, 2023)



The Universal Language of Microexpressions

Microexpressions are brief, involuntary facial expressions that occur on a person's face in response to the emotions they are experiencing. Dr Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the area, did significant research on facial expressions and established seven universal microexpressions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. These expressions are the same across different cultures and are even exhibited by individuals who have been blind since birth. Understanding microexpressions can be useful for interpreting and understanding people's emotions in various contexts. Facial expressions not only convey emotions but also trigger emotions. The study of microexpressions has a historical background, and notable researchers such as Charles Darwin and William Condon have contributed to its development (Haggard & Isaacs, 1966; Darwin, 1872; Condon, 1974). Dr Paul Ekman's work, including the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), has been influential in understanding and decoding facial expressions (Ekman, 2003; Ekman, n.d.). Overall, recognizing and interpreting microexpressions can provide valuable insights into nonverbal communication and human emotions.



Bibliographical References

Ekman, P. (1992). An argument for basic emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6(3-4), 169-200.


Ekman, P. & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124-129.


Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. John Murray.


Haggard, E. A., & Isaacs, K. S. (1966). Micromomentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. In L. A. Gottschalk & A. H. Auerbach (Eds.), Methods of research in psychotherapy, 154-165). Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Condon, W. S. (1974). The analysis of communicative movement. Quarterly Progress Report, 98, 157-167.


Ekman, P., & O'Sullivan, M. (1991). Who can catch a liar? American Psychologist, 46(9), 913-920.


Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed: Recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. Times Books.


Ekman, P. (n.d.). Facial Action Coding System (FACS). Retrieved from https://www.paulekman.com/facial-action-coding-system/


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