Body Language Facial Expressions

We begin learning early on in our lives about body language facial expressions.

"A key task of social life is understanding the motivational and affective states of others, and cues to those states can often be gleaned from facial expressions (Fridlund 1992)".

The entire attachment process which happens between moms and dads and newborns takes place through body language, since the infants, unless extraordinarily gifted, cannot talk.

If I remember my Allen Schore correctly, the infant's brain develops as a result of social interactions with the care givers, which means facial expressions and chatter so how we look at the baby and how we speak to the baby is incredibly important.

An insecure attachment, for example, is one of the markers that Donald Dutton has observed that adult male perpatrators of domestic violence have.

An insecure attachment means that those males flood with anxiety when they perceive that their mate is leaving, and any look of distraction on her face will serve as that cue, and one way to not have that painful internal response is to keep a mate as a prisoner.

So the process of paying attention to facial expressions begins early in life, and it would seem that we as parents and infants cue facial expressions in each other in a process called mirroring.

Schore talks about some signals from the participants in this communication that tell the participants that communication is proceeding apace.

The first is the presence of a foveal glint, which means the eyes of those involved are moist and shiny. The next signal is dilation of the pupils.

If you see those physiological signals from the baby, you and child are connecting and brain development is happening, and if you could look in the mirror, your eyes probably look the same as the babies eyes.

Ekman Explains Body Language Facial Expressions

Leap ahead a bit to the work of Paul Ekman,Ph.D. who has been studying facial expressions for 30 years.

Ekman says the there are seven basic facial expressions;

SADNESS: The eyelids droop as the inner corners of the brows rise and, in extreme sadness, draw together. The corners of the lips pull down, and the lower lip may push up in a pout.

SURPRISE: The upper eyelids and brows rise, and the jaw drops open.

ANGER: Both the lower and upper eyelids tighten as the brows lower and draw together. Intense anger raises the upper eyelids as well. The jaw thrusts forward, the lips press together, and the lower lip may push up a little.

CONTEMPT: This is the only expression that appears on just one side of the face: One half of the upper lip tightens upward.

DISGUST: The nose wrinkles and the upper lip rises while the lower lip protrudes.

FEAR: The eyes widen and the upper lids rise, as in surprise, but the brows draw together. The lips stretch horizontally.

HAPPINESS: The corners of the mouth lift in a smile. As the eyelids tighten, the cheeks rise and the outside corners of the brows pull down.

My first exposure to the concept of body language came when I was a younger man much more full of testosterone than I am today, and I was interested in finding out which if any of the women around me were attracted to me.

It never occurred to me to try to manipulate women, it was just to hard to be incongruent (which means lying) for long periods of time, and as I studied the idea of body language over the years, I became aware that I was very adept at spotting subtle signals of anger in the faces of folks around me, and also less sensitive to expressions of affection than I might be.

Now I watch my children learn to mask their expressions when Daddy is asking the tough homework questions, and I feel a bit sad.

It was so nice to have them run to me as youngsters, with excitement and love in their eyes, and I miss those facial expressions at times.

In my counseling business, I am looking for what Ekman calls microexpressions, which can tell me something about a persons internal emotional state.

Microexpressions can lead us to emotions attached to memories and clients are routinely unaware of the intensity of the emotion, and exploring that intensity can free up energy for today's life.

I call it "awareness leads to choice".

Ekman says microexpressions can last a 15th to a 20th of a second. Compare that to an eye blink that can take all of 1/10th second, so we communicate emotion or tricks of emotion very rapidly.

When I see a microexpression, I ask about the emotion or thought that preceeded it, and have found the process of identifying the body language of facial expressions to be immensely useful in counseling.

But like any other communication, I think it is important to double check your perceptions. If you make a decision to fall in love based on a microexpression of attraction, you could be setting yourself up for a disappointment.

So be sure and study Helen Fisher's work on infatuation for an understanding of the brain chemistry involved in infatuation, so you can recognize what is happening, or you could find yourself involved in the attachment process with a baby. 

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