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Facial Expression: A Primary Communication System

Expression implies a revelation about the characteristics of a person, a message about something internal to the expresser. In the context of the face and nonverbal communication, expression usually implies a change of a visual pattern over time, but as a static painting can express a mood or capture a sentiment, so too the face can express relatively static characteristics (sometimes called physiognomy). The concept of facial expression, thus, includes:

  1. a characteristic of a person that is represented, i.e., the signified;
  2. a visual configuration that represents this characteristic, i.e., the signifier;
  3. the physical basis of this appearance, or sign vehicle, e.g., the skin, muscle movements, fat, wrinkles, lines, blemishes, etc.; and
  4. typically, some person or other perceiver that perceives and interprets the signs.

The existence and relationships among these components is a large area for study in the psychological and behavioral sciences. To read more about nonverbal communication, facial signs, and sign vehicles, see the on-line document Essential Behavioral Science of the Face ....

Roman Medusa facial expression
Roman architectural
carving of Medusa at
Turkish site showing
lowered and wrinkled

Facial expressions are an important channel of nonverbal communication. Many animal species display facial expressions, but expressions are highly developed particularly in the primates, and perhaps most of all, in humans. Even though the human species has acquired the powerful capabilities of a verbal language, the role of facial expressions in person-to-person interactions remains substantial. Messages of the face that provide commentary and illustration about verbal communications are significant in themselves. To see examples of such nonverbal communication, see the FAQ. Other types of expressions provide another, different mode for understanding the private, hidden side of the inner person, a side which may not be accessible in the form of verbalizations. For example, the facial behaviors related to emotion can reveal part of the feeling side of a person's private life. Such emotion indicators range from stereotyped, full-face expressions that are obvious to fleeting, partial-face movements that are hard to see. For more information about emotion expressions and some pictures of facial expressions, see the Emotion section.

nonverbal communication with Indian mask
Mask from India with
bulging eyes,
raised eyebrows,
and retracted lips

The study of human facial expressions has many aspects, from computer simulation and analysis to understanding its role in art, nonverbal communication, and the emotional process. Many questions about facial expressions remain unanswered and some areas are relatively unexplored. To get a broad picture of the kinds of questions that have been asked, answers to some of these questions, and the scientific research about the face that needs to be completed to answer them, see the online document Understanding the Face: Report to the National Science Foundation. Facial expressions and the ability to understand them are important for successful interpersonal relations, so improving these skills is often sought. See the Guide: How to Read Face for tips on improving your abilities.

pictures of facial expressions
Facial muscles produce
facial expressions and
emotion faces. Click for
pictures of facial expressions

Tools for Studying Facial Expression Produced by Muscular Action

The Facial Action Coding System (FACS) is a method that researchers use to measure facial expressions by identifying the muscular activity underlying transient changes in facial appearance. Researchers use in facial analysis to determine the elementary behaviors that pictures of facial expressions portray.

The FACS Affect Interpretation Database (FACSAID) is a tool for understanding what the muscular actions that FACS measures mean in terms of psychological concepts. FACSAID interprets the facial expressions in terms of meaningful scientific concepts.

Images copyright © Corel Corp. - do not copy.

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