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By Eliza Strickland, Discover Magazine, June 16, 2008

When confronted with something truly terrifying (say, for example, an irritated grizzly bear), most human faces assume the same expression, with bulging eyes and flaring nostrils. Researchers have long suspected that those facial adjustments serve some evolutionary purpose, but the mechanism has been unclear for over a century.

Now, a study presents an answer that seems rather obvious in retrospect. Those wide-open eyes and flared nostrils take in more sensory information, which helps when you’re trying to figure out how to evade swiping bear claws. 

Curiosity about the purpose of facial expressions goes back to Charles Darwin. In 1872, Darwin published The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which discussed the similar facial expressions found across human cultures and in some animal populations, and theorized that the expressions must have some evolutionary benefit. He guessed that the advantage lay in the ability to communicate emotions, which could reduce misunderstandings and help a group function efficiently.

Later scientists followed Darwin’s train of thought and discovered that the expression of emotions is strikingly similar across cultures – horror and disgust look pretty much the same on the face of a New Yorker as they do on a Nigerian, and people from different cultures can recognize emotions such as happiness, anger and surprise on others’ faces, even if they don’t share a language. The fact that emotional expressions seem to be universal led scientists to believe they weren’t used only for communication and social purposes, but also served an additional adaptive biological function.

More here.


Kate Devlin

The Telegraph, June 17, 2008

Scientists may have discovered the reason why some people always look glum.

Limited or very specific facial expressions could be explained by the fact that some humans have fewer muscles in their face than others, research from the University of Portsmouth suggests.

The findings could perhaps explain why certain people, such as the character Victor Meldrew in the television series One Foot in The Grave, seem to have a permanent scowl.

The study, published in the American Psychological Association Journal, found that all human being have the same set of five “core” facial muscles.

Dr Bridget Waller, who led the research, believes that these muscles control our ability to produce standard expressions showing anger, happiness, surprise, fear, sadness and disgust.

But there are an extra 14 muscles which can be present in the face, and many people do not have a full set.

Dr Waller, from the university’s Centre for the Study of Emotion in the Department of Psychology, said: “Everyone communicates using a set of common signals and so we would expect to find that the muscles do not vary among individuals. “The results are surprising – in some individuals we found only 60 per cent of the available muscles.”

One muscle, used to control our ability to create an expression of extreme fear, is found in only two thirds of the population, the study shows.

Dr Waller, from the university’s Centre for the Study of Emotion in the Department of Psychology, added: “Some less common facial expressions may be unique to certain people.

“The ability to produce subtly different variants of facial expressions may allow us to develop individual ‘signatures’ that are specific to certain individuals.”

She said that the only other part of the body where muscles were not uniform was the forearm, where 15 per cent of the population lack a specific muscle.

From Neuroanthropology, May 28, 2008

On the interdisciplinary New Humanities Initiative being created by David Sloan Wilson and Leslie Heywood at Binghamton University.

Proposal here.

Would Wittgenstein have favored closer research ties between the humanities and the sciences? Given his general disdain for academic culture and cultural conservatism, the answer is likely not. Then again, his conception of philosophy as an adverbial does promote  – in theory at least – interdisciplinary work, if only to contrast philosophy with science.

The differences between philosophy and science make the prospect of interdisciplinary work exciting. According to Wittgenstein, science provides causal explanations of empirical phenomena; philosophical problems, by contrast, cannot be solved by experience or causal explanation, since they are conceptual, not factual. They need not new information or discoveries, but greater clarity about linguistic meaning. The second-order reflections of philosophy on our conceptual apparatus can address in scientific practice, according to Wittgenstein, the contempt for the ‘particular case’ and the ‘craving for generality’. Instead of seeking analytic definitions, we should be mapping the various uses of words in linguistic practice.

Sam Harris


We are preparing to run another fMRI study of belief and disbelief, and we need volunteers to help us refine our experimental stimuli. This promises to be the first study of religious faith at the level of the brain. By responding to the four surveys I have posted online, you can make an enormous contribution to this work.

You’ll find links to these surveys on my home page.

Please answer as many of the surveys as you can. If you only have time to answer one, please choose at random (otherwise, we will have many more responses to the first than to the others).

Feel free to post this message to your blog or to forward the relevant links to your friends. I especially need Christians to respond, as one of the goals of these surveys is to design stimuli that a majority of Christians will find doctrinally sound.

I will, of course, pass along the results of this work the moment I have something to report.

Many thanks for your help.

All the best,


From Science Daily, April 24, 2008

In making a public appeal for the safe return of his missing wife, Michael White broke down in tears and sobbed.

‘My wife is a good person, never hurts anybody. If she’s out there and you see me or you see this, just stay out there and we’ll find you,’ said the tearful husband, sitting on the sofa in his living room in Edmonton after his pregnant wife Liana White disappeared in July 2005. Canadians watching his plea couldn’t help but be moved by the plight of the distressed man.

Three days later, flashes of anger broke through his sadness when talking with reporters. He said he was so frustrated with the police investigation that he was going to go and find his wife himself. He led volunteer searchers directly to her body in a ditch on the outskirts of the city, and was immediately arrested by police.

He’d been lying all along. Michael White was charged and convicted with second-degree murder and committing an indignity to a dead body.

How can we tell who’s lying, who’s not? New research out of Stephen Porter’s Forensic Psychology Lab at Dalhousie University determines the face will betray the deceiver’s true emotion, but not in the stereotypical ways we think. It’s not the shifty eyes or sweaty brow or an elongated nose (à la Pinocchio) the lie detector should look for. Instead, other elements of a liar’s face will give them away – “cracking” briefly and allowing displays of true emotion to leak on to the face. In fact, when Porter and his team analyzed White’s plea frame by frame, they found hints of anger and disgust in his face, not noticed by most of the supportive public.

Entire article here.

On Monday, I posted an article entitled ‘Face up to the facts’ by Tom Wilkinson. It was based on the paper Social influence in human face preference: men and women are influenced more for long-term than short-term attractiveness decisions by Anthony C. Little, Robert P. Burriss, Benedict C. Jones, Lisa M. DeBruine, and Christine A. Caldwell in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior (Volume 29, Issue 2, March 2008, pages 140-146).

Tom Wilkinson writes:

‘Participants were asked to judge the attractiveness and attitudes to sex of the opposite gender from a photograph of their face. This was compared to the real-life behaviour and attitude of the people in the photos – which they revealed in a detailed questionnaire. The experiments found that the men and women taking part could generally judge who would be more interested in a short-term fling just by looking at their expression and features. In one study of 153 participants, 72 per cent of people correctly identified the attitudes from photographs more than half of the time’.

I am interested in this finding of the study: ‘However, further questioning showed that the participants were not always confident their judgment was right’.

This shows that our third-person judgements are fallible. It does not establish the sceptical conclusion that, in judging the attractiveness of the opposite gender in a particular case, we are or could always be mistaken.

Why were the participants not always confident in the rightness of their judgement? One possible answer comes from Wittgenstein and his idea of the ‘imponderability of the mental’ (Philosophical Investigations, II 227-228). According to Wittgenstein, the thoughts and feelings of some people may be mysterious or impenetrable to us, even if they inform us of them. Ascriptions of attitudes (e.g., ‘He is interested in short-term flings’) are typically defeasible; that is to say, contextual, and also require close personal acquaintance. This strengthens the connection between the mind and the facial features. The occasional lack of confidence in our judgements reflects an indeterminancy in our concepts, which is also derived from the complex and unpredictable nature of human beings. Our judgements of a face are diverse and culturally relative. Finally, even those who are able to correctly judge most of the time who would be interested in casual sex from the face may not be able to specify conclusive criteria, since their evidence is ‘imponderable’; that is, it consists of a complex mix of behavior, context and antecedent events.


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.

From ABC News, January 24, 2008

Researchers claim they have perfected a system that uses computers to accurately identify images of people’s faces, which could aid in the apprehension of criminals in public places such as airports that use surveillance cameras, according to a study released Thursday.

But some experts still doubt that facial recognition software can be used to accurately pick people out of crowded, public areas. Comparing a database of images of criminals, to a real live person in a crowd, has been very difficult, concedes Rob Jenkins, a professor in the psychology department of the University of Glasgow and co-author of the study released in the journal Science. But using a newly developed program at the university, computers were found to be 100 percent accurate when using what they call an “averaged” face image, made up of 20 photos, Jenkins and co-author Mike Burton wrote in the paper.

“The great thing about this averaging process is it just washes out all these differences of single photographs. The lighting and the pose all kind of becomes neutralized,” Jenkins told And what you’re just left with is the core of the face. The aspects of the image are consistent from one photo to the next.”

Facial recognition programs have been used for years. The most successful applications have been in the government or the private sector, mostly to help identify employees seeking access to sensitive areas. Casinos have also been using the software to help spot criminals or known card cheats sitting at gaming tables.

“I’m skeptical that it will be able to show that there is 100 percent accuracy in facial recognition technology, especially in using facial recognition technology out of a crowd,” said Melissa Ngo, director of the Identification and Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “We’ve seen any number of studies and examples when trying to use facial recognition technology itself has been completely flustered when the subject is not standing still or in the right light, looking right at the camera.”

Entire article is here.

From the Arizona Daily Star, January 23, 2008

Have you ever known someone who was “good at faces”? The kind of guy who can instantly recognize someone he barely met a year ago?

In the insect world, some paper wasp species are a lot like that guy, and a new UA study published this month in the journal Brain, Behavior and Evolution, says that the brains of wasps that can discriminate between individuals work differently from those that cannot.

The goal of the study was “to find something in their brains that was different,” said Wulfila Gronenberg, associate professor of neurobiology and ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, and one of the authors of the paper. He said that much as bats use sound to navigate and have an enlarged area of the brain for processing sound, and birds have an enlarged memory portion of their brains to find the seeds they hide, wasps that can tell each other apart might have different kind of brains from those that can’t. The research has implications for how human brains function, because in some basic ways insect brains are very similar to those of more complex animals, including humans.
Entire article is here.

From the Nevada Appeal, January 22, 2008 

Miracles happen every day. So they say. But what if you’re a family in need of multiple miracles? Such is the case with the Harris clan in Carson City. Their problem was simple – and yet seemingly unsolvable. Their daughter Ashlee, 7, a first-grader at Mark Twain Elementary, was born without a smile. That’s right. She couldn’t smile.You see, Ashlee came into this world without the nerves and muscles in her face to crack a smile. It’s called Mobius Syndrome, a rare birth defect caused by the absence or underdevelopment of cranial nerves that control eye movement and facial expression. No matter how much mother Amy tickled and cooed and cajoled; no matter what little multi-colored sprites danced on the mobile that hung above her infant head, Ashlee wasn’t physically able to grin, smirk or even scowl.“When you have a child – as a parent – all you do is hope that they’re healthy, and happy,” Amy said. “You want everything in the world for your children, and you’ll do anything.

“Having a little girl that has so much life and energy, and can’t smile, well -it just breaks your heart.”

Local doctors were perplexed, and it wasn’t until the Harris family visited University of California, San Francisco Medical Center that Ashlee was diagnosed. But even they didn’t have an answer for the Harris family – not right away at least.“They said there’s nothing they could really do,” Amy said.She was inconsolable.

“It’s exhausting,” she said. “Here you have this problem that you think is fixable. And it’s not something you can really talk about with other people … ‘my child can’t smile’ – and you know what kids are like. It’s so hard when your child comes home with questions, every day – it was just a very sad experience for a parent.”

Finally, they found a solution.

Last June, Ashlee underwent an eight-hour surgery at UCSF performed by Dr. William Hoffman, chief of the school’s division of plastic and reconstructive surgery. The procedure was called a “cranial re-animation.” Surgeons removed nerves and muscles from Ashlee’s thigh and transplanted them to her face through an incision behind her ear.

The surgery was a success, but Ashlee’s story is not over. She still has “smile exercises” to practice daily, which help strengthen the nerves in her face.Even so, her condition afflicts her eyes as well, as she’s never been able to move them back and forth.“As much as we’re overjoyed that our little girl can smile, we still haven’t found a (surgeon) that says they can help with her eyes,” said Amy, a medical receptionist.Stepfather Tim Harris, a salesman for the Kirby Company, stayed at home with Ashlee’s brother, Kyle, 14, while the surgery and recovery took place.

“It was a family effort,” Tim said. “It’s just something we knew we had to do and we were lucky enough to live in a (region) where we could find someone that could help.

“But it’s taken a lot.”

The Harris family has insurance, and because Ashlee’s condition was congenital, Tim and Amy anticipate some of the surgery and recovery costs will be covered – but not all. The couple anticipates a six-figure tab.

And so, this Saturday, along with the help of local hypnotist/comedian Dan Kimm and the Galaxy Fandango 10 Cinema, the family will host a benefit fundraiser for Ashlee.

“They’re such a giving family,” Kimm said. “And, as a performer, you always have to remember to give back to the community. Some people give money, some give time – if I can volunteer a little bit and get families to come out, enjoy themselves and laugh – well, that’s basically the best I can do.”Ashlee, on a recent weekday night, was playing with a Barbie car she’d just gotten for her birthday and noshing on a Dorito.While she said the surgery went “good”, she was reluctant to share many details.Until, of course, she was asked what her relationship was like with her doctors.“Go ahead, tell them Ashlee,” Amy said.

“Well,” Ashlee said, as a grin spread across her face. “I made them laugh. I made them smile.”

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