New moms and dads do it without any lessons. Airport security personnel do it with special training. Lovers do it ad infinitum(some would say ad nauseum!). Teachers do it with practiced wisdom. Nurses do it with empathy for their patients.
Almost all of us, in fact, do it every day—we read the faces of family members, students, patients, customers, and even strangers. Our brains are wired to do a lightening analysis of faces from the time we are infants. We know that babies learn to hone this innate skill by mimicking the facial expressions of their moms and dads and caretakers.
As adults, we are all on a spectrum for being able to accurately read faces. Some of us are more finely attuned to the meaning of even quite subtle facial expressions and are able to understand, empathize, and communicate better. Fortunately, reading faces to understand the emotions behind them is a skill that can be learned.
The eminent psychologist, Dr. Paul Ekman, has studied emotions for over 40 years. He has developed a system,the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), through which people can learn to read the “microexpressions” of some forty facial muscles.” By employing the FACS system, you can learn to recognize when people are lying, but also to understand what they are feeling. Ekman and his team teach doctors, lawyers, law enforcement personnel, and performers to recognize these micrexpressions, which can reveal “hidden” information about a person.
Dr. Ekman traveled far and wide—even into societies that had rarely if ever had communication with the outside world—to study facial expressions. His research led him to the conclusion that there are at least seven universal expressions. That is, if you go into any human society, anywhere on Earth, people will recognize the emotion behind these seven universal expressions. Can you guess what they are? (The answers are at the bottom of this post, but see if you can guess the seven emotions before you look at the list!)
Next time you attend a meeting, speak to a co-worker or the boss, or chat with the cashier at the market, see what your powers of observation can tell you as you look at their faces.
ANSWERS: joy, anger, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, contempt
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