How well do you “face” fear?

 Newer theories of facial expression have called into question earlier ones known chiefly through the work of Paul Ekman (Basic Emotions Theory or BET) finding that basic human emotions such as anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness and joy are reflected in predictable and universal facial displays. Ekman also proposed that these are manifested in “micro expressions” which occur in 1/25th of a second and supposedly can’t be suppressed or hidden.

The newer thinking, known as the Behavioural Ecology View (BECV) points to significant cultural variability rather than uniformity in facial expression, and concludes that, in fact, facial displays operate primarily as a social tactic designed to influence the behavior of others.

The originators of the BECV theory gave the following examples of facial behaviors and their social uses: Smiling (state expressed: Happiness) = social use: Influence interactant to play or affiliate; Pouting (state expressed: Sadness) = social use: recruit interactant’s succor or protection; Scowling (state expressed: Anger) = Influence interactant to submit; Gasping (state expressed: Fear) = social use: Deflect interactant’s attack via one’s own submission or incipient retreat; Nose scrunching (state expressed: Disgust) = social use: Reject current interaction trajectory; Neutral (state expressed: Suppressed) = social use: Lead the interactant nowhere in interaction.

Confirming this, a study of bowlers cited as an example of expression used for social influence demonstrated that the competitors smiled in delight not at the moment of bowling a “strike”, but rather when they turned to look at their fellow bowlers (presumably seeking or anticipating approval).

Cultural differences in facial expression apparently also exist. A tenet of traditional Chinese etiquette translates: “Do not manifest your feelings in your face.” One online observation was that in Chinese culture lack of expression is actually a sign of respect for others and always smiling shows frivolity and disrespect. Some visitors to China report that Chinese do smile but mostly at people in their in-group (family, friends, coworkers, classmates.)

But smiling may be an important exception to the variability of expressions across cultures; in reporting from one survey that only a minority of people’s faces reflected their actual feelings, the co-author cited the exception of amusement, which almost always resulted in smiling or laughter (and which was apparently always interpreted as such).

The “exception” of smiling may suggest that not all expressions are subject in the same way to voluntary or conscious control—although facial expression to achieve a social goal may be so instantaneously activated as learned behavior that it bypasses conscious awareness and approaches the speed of a reflex.

So are expressions authentic or manufactured?

A clue to answering this question is the well-established link between emotion and the Autonomic (involuntary) Nervous System which suggests that physiologic changes and their manifestations in facial expression and body language cannot be (entirely) suppressed while being subject to some voluntary control.

(Such “manual override” of supposed involuntary processes has been amply demonstrated in experiments where indicators like blood pressure, respiration, brain waves and hormones were so modified by the subjects’ volition. But how far can voluntary control go?)

Could you fool a grizzly?

If facial displays encompass both possibilities—expressions as involuntary reflections of true emotions, and as tactics voluntarily employed for a purpose—consider, for example, how one would react at the approach of a grizzly bear. This should naturally evoke physical fear responses (protective and mostly hard-wired) that would likely be very difficult to suppress entirely.

One would have to instantly suppress all obvious (to the bear) signs of fear—including rigidity or stiffening—to achieve one of two possibly successful displays: the first, neutral, (BECV) which would “lead the interactant nowhere” but not necessarily provoke the bear, or the second, anger/hostility, which might bluff the bear into not charging.

In fact, the presence of anger as a mask or transformation of fear is well established in psychology. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that humans have learned to control their emotions in instances such as this, by trial and (frequently fatal) error, taking an innate survival mechanism (fear) and modifying it to their purposes. To be sure, grizzlies are also equipped to read emotional responses of would-be prey or adversaries; confronted by a human whose capabilities and intentions are unknown and are on life or death display, the grizzly will likely prefer a less formidable or threatening object of its attention.

So how good an actor you are in controlling outward signs of emotion could help you survive, given the rush of involuntary autonomic changes accompanying an emergency situation like a bear suddenly appearing: heart (and respiration) rate, cutaneous blood flow (blushing or turning pale), piloerection (hair standing up), sweating and others—all possible clues for attentive bears

And remarkably, enervation of the autonomic system works both ways: according to a textbook of neuroscience, “emotion-specific expressions produced voluntarily can elicit distinct patterns of autonomic activity.”

“For example, if subjects are given muscle by muscle instructions that result in facial instructions recognizable as anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness or surprise without being told which emotion they are simulating, each pattern of facial muscle activity is accompanied by specific and reproducible differences in visceral motor activity (as measured by indices such as heart rate, skin conductance, and skin temperature).”

“Moreover, autonomic responses are strongest when the facial expressions are judged to most closely resemble actual emotional expression and are often accompanied by the subjective experience of that emotion! One interpretation of these findings is that when voluntary facial expressions are produced, signals in the brain engage not only the motor cortex but also some of the circuits that produce emotional states. Perhaps this explains how good actors can be so convincing.”

“Nevertheless, we are quite adept at recognizing the difference between a contrived facial expression and the spontaneous smile that accompanies a pleasant emotional state.”

How body and mind can “face” threats…real and imagined

So within a loop that links both voluntary and involuntary processes, we can identify sensory organs, areas of cortical awareness, muscles and internal organs and reflex circuitry—all capable of eliciting emotion as well as reflecting it. Consequently, in the case of the cortex (forebrain), “fear” can even be imagined (in the case of the actor) or anticipated.

The textbook author concludes: “ For example, an anticipated tryst with a lover, a suspenseful episode in a novel or film, stirring patriotic or religious music, or dishonest accusations can all lead to autonomic activation and strongly felt emotions.”

“The neural activity evoked by such complex stimuli is relayed from the forebrain to autonomic and somatic motor nuclei via the hypothalamus and brainstem reticular formation, the major structures that coordinate the expression of emotional behavior….In summary, emotion and motor behavior are inextricably linked.”