What are microexpressions?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. There's Chuck Bryant.

Chuck Bryant: Welcome, people.

Josh Clark: And this is Stuff You Should Know.

Chuck Bryant: It is.

Josh Clark: And I'm about to tell Chuck - you guys should listen to this - Chuck, did you know there's a theory that there are two kinds of learning?

Chuck Bryant: Spill it.

Josh Clark: So there's one called cognitive learning, which is book learning -

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: - where, like, you read an article, and you read it again and again, and you try to, like, make connections and then -

Chuck Bryant: and Street smarts? No?

Josh Clark: Actually, yeah, that kind of would fall into the other category, which is called intuitive learning.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, okay.

Josh Clark: Um hm. And apparently, yeah, some people have more of one than the other. Ultimately, we would all, under this theory of learning, do both simultaneously. So you're reading a book, and you're taking in knowledge, and that's cognitive learning. Intuitive learning is where basically we're picking up cues unconsciously from our environment around us, and we're learning from that. So what you would call instinct or gut feeling would be the results of basically an unconsciously processed evaluation of, you know some stimuli in the environment.

Chuck Bryant: So street smarts.

Josh Clark: Street smarts it is, buddy.

Chuck Bryant: Absolutely.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And part of that, Chuck, actually is - well, we're about to talk about microexpressions, so I know you've heard of them.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: But that's part of these unconscious cues and information that we pick up without knowing about it, which would make it unconscious, as I said.

Chuck Bryant: I really liked this article. I thought it was very cool.

Josh Clark: I did, too. It was written by Tom Scheve.

Chuck Bryant: A friend of yours, right?

Josh Clark: Oh, BFF.

Chuck Bryant: So, Josh, we're gonna talk about microexpressions, which are in the face. We have to talk about the expressions you can make.

Josh Clark: Facial expressions.

Chuck Bryant: Yes.

Josh Clark: The broad plane ones that we see.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Right. So, yeah, Chuck, as I understand, there's seven universal facial expressions, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yes. Quickly, they are happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise and contempt.

Josh Clark: And what was the name of the guy who traveled the work studying these, Ekman?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, Paul Ekman.

Josh Clark: Paul Ekman, yeah. He went around the world to a bunch of desperate cultures all over the place and studied facial movements and found that those seven are universal.

Chuck Bryant: Right. He was trying to basically get to the root of whether or not it's a learned thing or not, and I thought - I love this man - I thought it was so cool that he could go to, like, the furthest reaches of Borneo, and they perhaps might make the same contempt face as I do.

Josh Clark: Yeah, or disgust.

Chuck Bryant: Or disgust.

Josh Clark: I could see smiling, fear, that kind of thing is universal.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But that's kind of strange because that suggests that those are universal feelings then, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, very cool.

Josh Clark: Okay. So, basically, Ekman documented all of these seven universal facial expressions. But that wasn't enough, right?

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: No. He and a guy named W.V. Friesen actually mapped out the muscles that create facial expressions, and what they came up with is the Facial Action Coding System -

Chuck Bryant: So cool.

Josh Clark: - which sounds like it should be, like, on the front of a comic book, you know -

Chuck Bryant: Right, it is.

Josh Clark: - with a fist punching out. And what the FACS does is it measures the movements of facial muscles and expresses them in action units.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, AUs.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So a raised eyebrow is AU 1, right? And it also denotes whether or not this movement was voluntary or involuntary, and it also measures intensity. So, like, a smile, the strength of a smile is measured in six degrees. And so you pop all this stuff together, and you apply it to our knowledge of the seven universal expressions, and you can say, just by analysis of these facial muscles, exactly what emotion is going on.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I think that's so cool.

Josh Clark: It is very cool and conceivably useful. There's stuff called Facial Recognition Systems, and right now, as it stands, they're kind of hit or miss. They tried on in Logan Airport in Boston, and it was, like, 61 percent accurate, which isn't enough because if you're gonna be stopping people based on their facial expression, it needs to be a lot higher than that.

Chuck Bryant: No. Were they studying microexpressions or -

Josh Clark: Um hm.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, okay.

Josh Clark: Yeah, but also, there's software out there that can look for fugitives in a crowd based on the FACS and what Ekman and Friesen came up with.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: But yes, no, the one at Logan Airport, not microexpressions.

Chuck Bryant: Gotcha.

Josh Clark: That's another one that I think FEMA - no, Homeland Security -

Chuck Bryant: TSA.

Josh Clark: Yeah, TSA is using. It's like a trailer, and you walk through, and it, like, I think they show you stuff that's supposed to create, like, a facial or a microexpression if you're uncomfortable, and I don't think it's in use commercially yet.

Chuck Bryant: I think if they were smart, they would hire my wife.

Josh Clark: Oh, is she good at that?

Chuck Bryant: Oh, she is. Not only does she have a keen gut instinct on things, which is pretty accurate, I must say, but, yeah, she can read body language and facial expressions like nobody's business.

Josh Clark: Well, if she can read microexpressions that would make her part of just 10 percent, an estimated 10 percent of people who can pick up on microexpressions when they're shown them.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I would say that's her for sure.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: I cannot fool her, ever.

Josh Clark: Okay. So, Chuck, we've got facial expressions down, and we know that not everybody can consciously pick up on microexpressions. What are microexpressions?

Chuck Bryant: Well, basically, it's not one thing, but it's super fast, sometimes as fast as 1/25th of a second.

Josh Clark: That's fast.

Chuck Bryant: And it's just a really, really quick facial queue that, like you said, not many people even notice sometimes.

Josh Clark: Right. But we're still, again, we're picking it up on an unconscious level, so the information's in there, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So when you are talking to some - just kind of a slimy guy, and you're getting a slimy impression from him, you're not quite sure why because he's smiling at you.

Chuck Bryant: Like I am now.

Josh Clark: Exactly. See, right there, right there, I just saw that look of contempt.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So now, I don't trust you, but I'm not quite sure why, which I think because facial expressions are generally considered a revelation of the real emotion that's going on, it lends itself to the idea that you should trust your instincts. If you get a bad feeling from somebody, run away or knife them or do something. Don't just listen to, like, their plain expression.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That could be the microexpression if you've ever had that feeling like, "I don't know what it is about that guy, but something about him," you may be picking up on very valid microexpressions.

Josh Clark: Right. And, again, they're fast and 1/25th of a second, and most people can't pick them up, but that doesn't mean that they are insignificant, I guess is my point.

Chuck Bryant: No, they're very significant.

Josh Clark: Not everybody is as attune to faces as your wife, Emily, is though.

Chuck Bryant: Is that so?

Josh Clark: Do you know that?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, sure.

Josh Clark: Well, there's actually a condition, a medical condition.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, okay. I didn't know that.

Josh Clark: Yes. It's prosopagnosia, a.k.a. recognition impairment or, for just the ultimate laypeople, us face blindness.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: And basically, it's an actual medical condition. They're not entirely certain what causes it, but they've seen it - people have been born with it, and they've seen it as the result of stroke or brain damage from a car accident, right, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: Uh huh.

Josh Clark: And what they do know is that there is some sort of impairment in the fusiform gyrus, which is located in the temporal lobe, and this is the area of the brain that's in charge of processing visual information of faces.

Chuck Bryant: Right, visual cues.

Josh Clark: It's that specialized. It just has to do with the faces. So people who have face blindness actually have been shown under MRI scans to - this area doesn't activate. It's not working.

Chuck Bryant: So they can't tell if someone is pleased or displeased by looking at their face, like, they don't understand what a frown or a smile means?

Josh Clark: No, no, no. They'll get that. They'll get that. And apparently, that was a terrible segue. They can still - they're looking at your face, and they can see if you're smiling or frowning. What they don't do is make a memory of your face.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, okay.

Josh Clark: So, Chuck, how many times have we seen each other since we first met?

Chuck Bryant: One too many.

Josh Clark: Ouch, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: Thousands of times.

Josh Clark: Let's say thousands.

Chuck Bryant: Sure, sure.

Josh Clark: If one of us had face blindness, it would be like seeing the other one for the first time right now.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, as in they wouldn't - like, I would say, "I don't know who this person is."?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: I mean, like, I would say, "It's me, Josh," but you wouldn't know for certain because you can't recall a memory, a visual memory of my face, even though I saw you yesterday or earlier in the hall. I'm a total stranger to you. So, of course, this makes life kind of hard for people with face blindness.

Chuck Bryant: Oh, yeah, wow.

Josh Clark: Like, for example, a television show or a movie, try keeping up with that. Like, every time you see the main character again, it's, like, where's this guy coming from?

Chuck Bryant: Right. So you'd be watching your Magnum P.I., and every episode, you'd think, "Who is this handsome mustached guy in the Ferrari?"

Josh Clark: I would, but the thought of not being able to keep up with Magnum P.I., it's a hellish thought, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant: I know. I would never wish that on you.

Josh Clark: But that's just movies and TV. Let's talk about real life. There are tricks that people with face blindness have come up with, like every morning -

Chuck Bryant: Nametags?

Josh Clark: Hm?

Chuck Bryant: Nametags? No?

Josh Clark: Nametags would work, sure.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: But, at the same time, how do you know that people aren't playing practical jokes on you?

Chuck Bryant: Right, like the movie, "Memento."

Josh Clark: I love that movie.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: What a great movie. Actually, I'm gonna go watch that after this now.

Chuck Bryant: Good idea.

Josh Clark: One trick that people do at work when they have face blindness is go around and write down - you can look at the name tag on the cubicle, and then you write down what that person's wearing, and then you can kind of maybe study it or access it when you need to, when you're talking to somebody. I have a feeling that people who work with people with actual face blindness are probably fairly forgiving because, other than that, there's no other disorder.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: It's just, "I don't know who you are." With family members, they'll often create, like, a safe word, like a password. So if somebody says, "Hey, it's dad. I need to borrow 500 bucks," he'll also say, like, "Geronimo," or "apache," or something -

Chuck Bryant: A trigger.

Josh Clark: - something, "pickle," "Eskimo," something like that, so you know that it's actually them.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That makes sense.

Josh Clark: It is, but do you know of any more interesting disorders than that?

Chuck Bryant: That's a pretty good one. That's right up there with alien hand syndrome.

Josh Clark: I agree, or Jerusalem syndrome, which we'll get to eventually, I'm sure.

Chuck Bryant: Can we talk about Alex Rodriguez?

Josh Clark: I'm so proud of you right now, Chuck, I am beaming.

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: Because you came up with this. You're a wonderful man.

Chuck Bryant: Look at me, little me, making it happen. Dr. Ekman, who is the master, from what I can tell, at microexpressions, he, as everyone knows by now probably, in the sports world, Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez recently came out that he - not came out - but he revealed that he used steroids for a couple of years. And he famously had an interview with Katie Couric before that where he absolutely said he did not and that he never saw them in the clubhouse, and he didn't know much about them. And so good Dr. Ekman, recently as last week actually, reviewed his videotape of this Couric interview and picked up on three microexpressions that indicated that he was lying.

Josh Clark: Wow.

Chuck Bryant: One was a gestural slip, which is when one of your shoulders raises slightly, so it's just a microexpression obviously, so it's not something - and this isn't even on the face - but his shoulder raised slightly quite a few times in the interview when she was asking him blunt questions, and he was giving firm denials. And he said that it does not - that kind of expression does not line up with firm denials. People that are firmly denying something do not do the gestural slip. One was unilateral contempt. I like this one. He said that Rodriguez would raise the corner of his lip just slightly, and that indicates arrogance or a feeling of superiority, and he said he did this a lot. And he doesn't know if this might just be a trait that he has. Maybe he thinks he's better than everyone else. I don't know. But he said it definite ly doesn't fit with what he was saying about being humbled with the steroid use.

Josh Clark: Gotcha.

Chuck Bryant: And interestingly, it's called unilateral because it's the only emotion with a corresponding facial expression that occurs just on one side of the face. Everything else, anger, surprise, fear, sadness are bilateral, so both sides of your face would react.

Josh Clark: Yes.

Chuck Bryant: So I thought that was interesting. And the last one was micro-fear, and she pointedly asked him if he had ever been tempted to use illegal drugs. He answered with a simple "no," and along with that "no" was a micro-fear expression, which was basically a horizontal stretching of the lips. And he said that basically he looked like he was lying because it's either fear or a fear of being caught when you make this expression.

Josh Clark: Or surprise, too. Aren't fear and surprise often confused?

Chuck Bryant: Yes, indeed.

Josh Clark: Which is actually one of the problems with searching for microexpressions? People with social anxiety have shown to launch into an anxiety attack when they're confronted with microexpressions of surprise or fear because they mistake the surprise look for fear, and it's a microexpression. They're already socially anxious as it is, so all of a sudden, their gut's telling them something.

Chuck Bryant: Interesting.

Josh Clark: There you go, so, yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Well, he had one more little one, which I thought was the best. At the end of the interview, he flatly denied taking drugs, and he said that he actually slightly nodded his head in the affirmative as he was saying that -

Josh Clark: Nice.

Chuck Bryant: - which there you have it.

Josh Clark: Yeah, you can't pull one by Paul Ekman.

Chuck Bryant: No.

Josh Clark: No.

Chuck Bryant: I would not wanna be A-Rod and sit in front of him and try and tell the truth.

Josh Clark: No. So that's microexpressions.

Chuck Bryant: Yes, it is.

Josh Clark: And there's a lot more to it. I think anybody would be wise to go onto our site and read, "What Are Microexpressions?" There's a pretty in-depth explanation of facial expressions and the whole shebang.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's interesting.

Josh Clark: So you can look that up. And, Chuck, is it listener mail time?

Chuck Bryant: Not quite.

Josh Clark: Oh, no. What?

Chuck Bry ant: We need to give a little shout-out to our new blog, which is on our website. It's called Stuff You Should Know. You can find it at HowStuffWorks.com, and Josh and I post once a day each, little interesting news items, tidbits, and we want to engage the Stuff You Should Know nation, get people talking.

Josh Clark: Yeah. And you can get to it on the homepage, HowStuffWorks.com on the right-hand side.

Chuck Bryant: And without further ado, the chime says listener mail time. You ready, Josh?

Josh Clark: I was born ready.

Chuck Bryant: This is a good one. This came to us from a writer named Leigh, and that would the female Leigh, not L-E-E. And Leigh heard us talk about the one guy who wrote in, talking about that he was possessed by the god Horus, and she thought we were very accepting of that notion that, sure, who knows, you know, anything could happen.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: So she wrote this about her daughter. She said she has an attractive daughter, very intelligent, lovely and outgoing. And in high school, her daughter was only attracted to gay men, one after the other. A lot of times, they were not out with their sexuality. Sometimes they didn't even know it yet, but she had a terrible, terrible time falling in love with and being mistreated by gay men because they clearly could not return the love.

Josh Clark: Okay.

Chuck Bryant: So she was very frustrated by this. She took her daughter to a card reader, and apparently this card reader said the reason that she cannot get over falling in love with gay men is because she was possessed - her spirit was possessed by a gay man named Jerome from the 1800s.

Josh Clark: Wow.

Chuck Bryant: And this is what the card reader said. She said Jerome is running the show. And the kid basically says, "I don't like this. I'd like to get rid of this spiritual possession."

Josh Clark: Jerome's kind of baggage.

Chuck Bryant: Baggage, and so the card reader, she said, quote, "without any fancy-pantsy ceremony," said that Jerome was gone, and she got rid of him. And the lady said after that, her daughter felt different, never fell in love with a gay man again, had healthy relationships. And I just thought this was real interesting.

Josh Clark: It is very interesting.

Chuck Bryant: And as we are always - our motto is, "Who knows? To each his own or her own," who knows what's going on out there in the wacky universe?

Josh Clark: Agreed.

Chuck Bryant: She could have been possessed by a gay man named Jerome from the 1800s.

Josh Clark: Well, thank you, Leigh, and your daughter and Jerome, as well. And if you have a really cool story to share with us or you just wanna say hi - no haikus - send an email to stuffpodcast@howstuffworks.com.

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