From the San Francisco Chronicle, January 24, 2008
The human mind does strange and wondrous things: Its 100 billion nerve cells packed into a single, lumpy gray organ called the brain can think faster than a computer, ponder the mysteries of life with excruciating slowness, control every movement of the body and command it to fight, flee or stand its ground in defiance.
Now, at San Francisco’s Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina, a team of neuroscientists, artists, mechanics and builders has created a varied collection of exhibits – many weird as can be – that allow visitors to watch their own minds at work.
The interactive exhibits will have visitors use their minds for speed-thinking competitions, to catch a liar in a simulated poker game, to conceal their thoughts when they themselves lie, or to react to emotional conflicts: One, for example encourages visitors to drink from a water fountain that’s actually a toilet.
A major feature of the show is the first public showing ever of a black-and-white movie that Paul Ekman, the famed UCSF psychologist, made 40 years ago in New Guinea to prove that Charles Darwin was right and modern anthropologists like famed Margaret Mead were wrong when they argued that facial expressions of human emotions differed among people in different cultures.
Darwin published his seminal book, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” in 1872 and argued that human facial expressions mirrored emotions regardless of the culture in which a person lived. They were part of humanity’s evolutionary endowment, Darwin maintained.
Mead and most modern anthropologists disagreed. Facial smiles and frowns and bared teeth and furrowed brows could all have entirely different meanings in different cultures, they insisted, and were certainly not linked to universal heredity.
But Ekman, now 74, sided with Darwin, and made his movie and photographs in 1967 and 1968 when as a young psychology researcher he journeyed to New Guinea’s highlands to find the Fore tribe of isolated stone-age people who had never seen white folk or known their customs and artifacts.
The Fore had never seen their own faces in a mirror, had never seen photographs or toothbrushes or shoes. But their smiles and frowns were just like Ekman’s.
So he photographed and filmed the village people’s faces when they listened to stories of wild pigs charging, infants dying, intruders marauding, disgusting foods smelling, bad news circulating or happy events occurring, and Ekman found all their facial expressions mirrored the same emotions as everyone else in the world. Those photos are also on view at the Exploratorium.
“The results were extremely strong,” Ekman said. “They were a turning point in my understanding that the expression of our emotions in our faces really had a biological base.”
Ekman’s seminal work has been widely accepted, and after studying the muscles that control his own face in expressing emotions, he created what he calls a “facial action coding system” based on understanding what all those various muscles do.
And it has paid off: He now heads the Paul Ekman Group LLC, a commercial firm that, for a fee, he said, has taught animators at Pixar and Disney to create convincing faces for film characters, and has also trained CIA and the FBI counter-terrorism specialists to recognize the emotions behind involuntary facial expressions.
More recently, he said, his group of “face readers” has trained 1,200 “Behavior Detection Officers” for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration – the folks who watch for suspicious facial expressions of tension, anxiety or possibly “deadly intent” as passengers stand in line to take off their shoes and open their bags for inspection.
This kind of “behavior profiling” can be highly effective in spotting suspicious travelers, Ekman says, but it raises problems, too.
“I’m very concerned about the privacy issues here or the possibility for racial profiling,” Ekman said. “There are real civil liberties problems if a person is pulled out of an airport line and interrogated just on the basis of a suspicious expression that actually meant nothing – a “false positive” in other words.
“I think Congress must assure that all records of those interrogations are destroyed immediately if the presumably suspicious people are cleared.”
Ekman’s New Guinea film will run continuously, and an exhibit of his dramatic close-up photographs of the Fore individuals will be on view in the Mind exhibit at the Exploratorium from Friday through April 20, while the exhibition continues through the year.