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Have you ever been asked to "wipe that expression off your face" or to "smile for the camera"? Were you able to? Our facial expressions tell others what we're thinking and feeling-and usually it's easy to tell when someone is faking an expression. In addition, our facial muscles send messages to our brains so that when we make a facial expression, our emotions grow stronger. You have 80 muscles that control what happens on your face. Those muscles communicate at least 40 different groups of expressions-the six primary emotions and their blends. Using the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), scientists have observed and analyzed nearly 10,000 facial expressions by determining which muscular actions produce each expression. By studying the mechanics of smiles, frowns, and the thousands of other "faces" we make, scientists are beginning to understand how people use facial expressions. Why is it important to study facial expressions and who cares about them? Actors study expressions to seem more realistic. Police detectives look at the faces of suspects and witnesses to help determine if they are telling the truth. Airport security people study faces of travelers to look for clues about danger in the skies. Medical professionals observe facial reactions during physical exams. Interpreters closely watch the faces of the speakers to determine accurately the message to translate. Reading faces is an important survival skill. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab are working on many projects that involve computers learning to imitate human movement, actions, and even emotions. One project involves developing ways for computer-generated models to interact with each other, using speech with appropriate intonations, hand gestures, and facial movements. In another, scientists use algorithms to generate facial animations from speech and are studying how the face, hands, and speech complement each other in our communication. The focus of another project looks at how people might communicate with computers using speech, gesture, and gaze-the same things humans use to communicate with each other. So next time you meet someone, take a few seconds to think about what that person's face is communicating before either of you says a word. Chances are you'll be able to tell what the person is feeling. But remember-he or she might be doing the same thing to you!


Does a smile only happen on one part of your face? Create a face book to find out. By combining different faces, you can identify what emotions other people see on each face you create. You'll learn which parts or combination of parts of the face communicate most accurately. Materials
  • magazines you can cut up
  • scissors
  • glue
  • construction paper or other heavy paper
  • markers and pens
  • three 1" metal rings or spiral binding machine and binding material 1. Working with two or three partners, collect large (8.5" x 11") pictures of faces from magazines. 2. Glue each face to a page of paper. You should have at least 10 pages of faces. Punch holes in each page and use metal rings or a spiral binding machine to make a booklet. 3. Make two horizontal cuts through each page, dividing the faces into these parts: brow/forehead/eyes; nose; and lower face (mouth, chin). Identify each part of each face on the back of each section. Example: Face 1a (eyes), Face 1b (nose), Face 1c (lower face). 4. Create a table/log to record the face combinations and the emotions your classmates think each face communicates. Remember that there are many more emotions than sad, angry, and happy. Encourage your viewers to think of more complicated emotions, such as satisfied, disgusted, desperate, compassionate, scornful, excited, dull, egotistical, and fawning. Look in a dictionary or thesaurus for some other unusual or detailed emotions. 5. Flip through the booklet to create facial composites. Be sure to note in your log which combination of parts was used for each face and each person's response to that face. Ask your viewers how and why they came to their conclusions. Questions 1. What do your findings demonstrate about how we "read" faces? Share your ideas with the class. 2 What features change the expression the most? The eyes? The mouth? 3. Does everyone tend to focus on the same features? Where do you look first?
  • Resources

      Psychologists Press.

      Computer Software
      Mindscape: How your body works. CD-ROM for Macintosh or MPC. (888) 808-4311 or


      American Psychological Association
      750 First Street NE
      Washington, DC 20002-4242
      (202) 336-5500
      MIT Media Lab
      MIT Building #E15, The Wiesner Building
      20 Ames Street
      Cambridge, MA 02139
      (617) 253-0338

      Print and AV materials

      Mandler, G. (1989) "Notes on emotion," written for the Rotating Faces Exhibit in the Traveling Psychology Exhibition of the American Psychological Association.

      The "Rotating Faces" and related activities are part of the exhibition entitled "Psychology: Understanding Ourselves, Understanding Each Other." The exhibition was developed and produced by the American Psychology Association and the Ontario Science Centre in cooperation with the Association of Science-Technology Centers, the Exploratorium, and The Children's Museum, Boston. Additional support for the exhibition was provided by the National Science Foundation, the William T. Grant and Alfred P. Sloan Foundations, Harvard University, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the Annenberg/CPB Project.