ACM - Computers in Entertainment

Body language and emotions: the theory of Freud, Darwin and Ekman

By Dr. Emiliano Forino Procacci

The language is that particular form of expression that allows human beings to establish an interactive relationship with others through the use of a complex code. Communication has always made the life of humanity and the construction of various civilizations possible; it is through language that social structures and the lifestyles of many people were created.

Emotions, for their part, are that aspect of the human spirit that has always played an important role in determining, it can be said, many developments of history. The word emotion comes from the Latin "emovere" which also means "let out, move from" and refers to something that is characterized by movement and that comes suddenly. Emotions, in fact, find their origin in the tendency to act, which is typical of the human soul and of all that is alive.

The importance of emotions in human communication was already theorized by Aristotle, who carefully examined its nature and noticed the usefulness of the emotional states that the speaker can elicit, translating the rational logical thinking in statements based on emotions, in order to steal the attention of the audience and capture its consensus.

Recent discoveries in psychology and in the study of facial expressions (Ekman P., 1972) allowed to decipher the telltale signs of emotions, providing useful knowledge in all areas including that of communication. Those who decided to follow the interesting path to an in-depth knowledge of the secrets of the art of communication shouldn't ignore which and how many the universal emotions that can be felt by man are and how they appear on people's faces. Knowing how to recognize the expressions that appear on the face of the interlocutor helps direct the speech in a way to reach harmony with the audience. You should remember that facial expressions can be simulated. Recent studies have allowed to discover these simulations.

Paul Ekman, the discoverer of that particular and until then not well-known type of facial expressions that go by the name of "facial micro expressions", as well as eminent scholar of body language and whose name is provided in the list of the hundred most influential people in the world, published in The Times in 2009.

It is hard to imagine the practical consequences that may result from this amazing discovery.

The human face is made up of 43 muscles that can create a range of 10,000 different expressions; when an emotion is caused, a process that results in an expressional mimicry is activated at the neural level. The interesting aspect of micro expressions is that they, by their nature, never occur randomly, but always express emotions (facial muscles are directly connected to those areas of the brain that are activated as soon as you feel an emotion).

Emotions and related facial expressions were taken into account (in this case we talk about macro expressions) by the founder of evolution and that of psychoanalysis.

The theory of evolution[1], according to the wording by Darwin, posits that some emotions, as well as many behavioral patterns, are kept unchanged during human evolution because they can ensure a better adaptation to the natural environment (Darwin 1859); he believed that the expression of emotions, basically, has the purpose to inform the others of the states of mind of a person and to prepare the body to react to an event that could endanger integrity.

Darwin observed that some facial expressions are shared by individuals who have never had contact with each other (universality) and belonging to very different social groups.

Freud, however, understood how language could help in causing profound changes in people by generating emotions (Freud S., General introduction Psychoanalysis, Bollati Boringhieri, 1977) and expressed himself like this:

Originally words were like magic and, even today, words have retained much of their old magic power. With words a man can make others happy or push them to despair, with words teachers convey their knowledge to students, with words speakers sweep away the audience and determine their judgments and decisions. Words provoke affects and are the common means by which people influence each other[2].

According to Freud, an emotion is a complex event that incorporates elements that belong to the childhood of the individual and which is manifested through facial expressions, slips of the tongue, free associations, etc.

The universality of facial expressions that had already been postulated by Darwin was demonstrated by Paul Ekman, who wondered whether they actually differ from one culture to another or not, concluding with a universal homogeneity. According to this scholar, therefore, an Italian person who is exposed to the same stimuli as people of other nationalities manifests the same facial expressions. However, he wanted to check if the media could have affected the learning of facial expressions and reactions of uniformed men from different societies and cultures in some way; he set out to study the faces of people who had lived isolated from Western society, free from any form of contact with the means of mass communication. A series of experiments was conducted on the southeastern highlands of New Guinea, where a population that had never had contact with Western society lived. The experimental procedure involved to tell a story to indigenous people, showing them photographs that were related to different situations. The analysis of the facial expressions and emotions that were cataloged and collected by the team of scholars, confirmed that they corresponded exactly to those of other Western cultures; the hypothesis that emotions are universal was thus validated. Therefore, Darwin was right when he argued an, albeit partial, universality of forms of expression of emotions.

While the majority of facial expressions lasts more than one second, microexpressions, instead, only last for about 1 / 5th - 1/25 th of a second. Such brevity prevents the non-expert to detect them, and a long training is necessary to be able to succeed in this.

They form small "fragments" which, however, occurr often enough to understand if the people we face are trying to control their facial expressions and to disguise (sometimes unconsciously) their true emotions. This doesn't only allow us to be able to seize those particular emotions that our words cause in others, but also understand if the person we face is being sincere with us.

Ekman acutely observed that emotions are so fast that they may arise in humans even before the latter has full rational awareness of them, since the speed with which they manifest themselves refers to an ancient biological mechanism, which is necessary to activate the body to react to unexpected events. Primal fear allows to react to dangerous situations by providing the necessary resources to handle unexpected events (the aforementioned amygdala is the part of the brain which is responsible for handling emotions, particularly fear). When the amygdala evaluates a situation as dangerous for the individual, it is activated and sends alarm signals to the brain and stimulates the release of hormones, which trigger the reaction of either flight or fight; this speed is just to not keep the brain busy for a long time, so it can take action and respond the sudden event in a better way.

The face, according to Ekman, transmits information through the following types of signal: static, artificial, fast, slow. Static signals are represented by permanent traits of the face as the masses of tissue and bone cells that make up the features. Artificial signals are, however, the make-up which is usually worn by women or  cosmetic surgery. Fast signals are substantiated in muscle activity of the face, giving rise to facial expressions. Slow signals are those variations of the face that occur in the course of time, such as the "wrinkles" that are formed by the frequent use of a given facial configuration.



[1] Darwin C., The origin of the species (6th ed), London: John Murray.

[2] Freud S., Introduzione alla Psicoanalisi , Torino, Bollati Boringhieri, 1977, p. 270.