Facial Expression Has Many Messages and Multiple Sources
The expression of a given face at a specific time is conveyed by a composite of signals from several sources of facial appearance.
These sources include the general shape, orientation (pose), and position of the head,
the shapes and positions of facial features (e.g., eyes, mouth),
coloration and condition of the skin, shapes of wrinkles, folds, and lines, and so forth.
Some of these sources are relatively fixed; others, more changeable.
The most important source of change in facial expression is
the set of muscular movements produced by facial muscles, which provide the most
substantial changes in facial appearance over short time durations and contribute most to nonverbal communication by the face.
Other shorter term origins that may contribute to expressions are blood flow and glandular secretions.
As a generalization, muscular activity contributes expressive variation
on a background of more slowly changing or static expressive sources.
These latter sources include the sizes, positions, and shapes of fleshy tissues, hair, teeth, cartilage, and bones.
Multiple Messages in Nonverbal Communication
Corresponding to the several sources of expressive information in the face are
the many nonverbal communication messages that the face can provide.
Some of these messages are validly related to characteristics of the person behind the face,
some are fabrications of the viewer unrelated to the real person,
and others lie somewhere between these two extremes.
Much of the research on the face is centered on discovering the messages
that fit into these different categories.
Another perspective on the range of facial messages is to consider objective description, such as a list of physical anatomical measurements, as an anchor for veridical information, and ever more abstract generalizations or inferences about characteristics more remote from these specific observations becoming increasingly difficult to verify.
A further difficulty for interpreting the face is that the appearances produced by one source of facial information can interact with another, producing a mixture, as mentioned above, that can hide, mask, or interfere with the messages conveyed by each source. The structure of facial nonverbal communication is complex.
An Example of Messages from the Face
Consider the expressions you see in the animation on the right. What
message or messages does each face and expression convey?
Are these messages about feelings, state of mind, or something else? Can you describe what
areas or features of each face contain the signs that allow you to understand the message?
What muscles underlie the expression in each face?
Interpretations of the faces are here.
The interpretations of these facial expressions should provide an idea of the variety of information that
can be derived from nonverbal communication by the face and the sources of this information.
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