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Are you furious? Body cues tell us more than faces

As social creatures, non-verbal communication through facial expression is important in portraying emotions – and because of this, it’s interpreted rapidly and accurately. Regardless of culture, defined…

We recognise extreme emotions, but may need more than facial expressions to decode them. How Hwee young/EPA

As social creatures, non-verbal communication through facial expression is important in portraying emotions – and because of this, it’s interpreted rapidly and accurately.

Regardless of culture, defined facial expressions exist. It’s long been thought anger, surprise, contempt, disgust, happiness and sadness are recognised universally by humans, although even this has been questioned more recently.

These expressions are often involuntary and their universality allows cross-cultural interpretation. Certain expressions can also be interpreted in a cross-species manner: the expression of an enraged dog prevents us from unwittingly approaching a potential danger whereas a contented dog invites our approach.

But when the emotional expression is intense - is it really that easy to interpret? A study released today in Science suggests we may actually struggle to discriminate extreme emotions.

Pain and pleasure

For the Science paper, led by Hillel Aviezer of Princeton University, studies were undertaken to investigate whether dimensionally polarised emotions – extreme fear versus immense joyfulness - are really interpreted and encoded within the brain in such a distinct manner.

Happy, but would you know it without the fist-pump? Mast Irham/EPA

Intense emotions are thought to activate maximally distinct facial muscles to aid visual discrimination between positive and negative emotional states. But the processing of distinct emotions at a neurobiological level suggests that, despite motoric (relating to muscular movement) distinctiveness, intense emotions share similar neuroanatomy and neurochemistry.

Functional imaging studies in humans have demonstrated that brain regions such as the amygdala, nucleus accumbens, insular and orbitofrontal cortices show increased activation during both positive and negative emotions.

The neurotransmitter dopamine, which is associated with reward and motivation, is also involved in encoding signals associated with punishment.

Similarly, the opioid system, which the highly addictive drugs morphine and heroin activate, is also involved in stress and pain sensitisation.

Blurring the lines

With intense positive and negative emotions intrinsically linked by overlapping brain systems, it may be that these emotions are more difficult to discriminate than originally proposed.

For the Science study, Aviezer and colleagues demonstrated that participants struggled to determine whether intense emotions were positive or negative when shown facial expressions alone. The images used were of the immediate reactions of professional tennis players when winning or losing high-stakes points.

Agony … no, ecstasy. Both images: Ahmad Yushi/EPA

It was found that when facial expressions were combined with the appropriate body cues, participants were easily able to discriminate facial responses to winning or losing. The participants were also able to correctly identify emotions by body cues alone.

This indicates the crucial importance of postural cues in the identification of strong emotions. While participants were unable to determine the intensity of the emotion from body cues alone, participant ratings of isolated facial expressions accurately conveyed emotional intensity.

Impressions of expressions

A further experiment combined the facial and body cues in a hybrid manner: winning faces combined with losing bodies, and losing faces with winning bodies.

Participants were instructed to simulate the facial expression of the tennis player with their own faces, and the participant’s facial expressions were then photographed. Another group of participants viewed those images and rated the expressions on a scale of 0-9 on the basis of positive valence, a psychological rating of positive emotional expression.

It was found body cues that indicated winning, regardless of facial expression, were rated more positively. Conversely, body cues indicating losing, again regardless of facial expression, were rated less positively.

If you’re happy and you know it pump your hands. Left image: Barbara Walton/EPA. Right image: John G Mabanglo/EPA

The difficulty in determining facial expressions of emotion was extended to other expressions. Isolated positive emotional expressions (pleasure, victory, intense joy) and negative expressions (grief, defeat, pain) were all rated negatively when combined with an image of a body in acute pain (a man getting his nipple pierced) and positively when combined with body depicting triumphant victory.

Interpreting extreme emotions

It appears from the findings of these experiments that the contextual cues portrayed by body positions are vital in identifying intense emotions.

From an evolutionary viewpoint, body cues are more salient than facial expressions from a distance or in poor visual conditions.

Body cues can be interpreted as a “silent alarm” acting as a predictor of dangerous situations or to indicate a fortuitous occurrence. Faces are rich in information close up, but from a distance body cues are more salient.

The happiest/saddest man in the world. Jason Szenes/EPA

The authors interpret these data to indicate that facial musculature is incapable of accurately portraying intense emotions. Much like the acoustic distortion of music playing at a high volume on speakers, signals become degraded and indistinguishable, conveying only intensity as opposed to a tangible emotion.

On a similar note, the authors indicate that it’s very difficult to distinguish extreme vocal emotional expressions – screams of pleasure or pain. It may be that humans are simply encoding the intensity of an emotional response as that is what conveys the salience as opposed to the facial expression.

The “noisy”, intense facial signal is accompanied by body cues to disambiguate the emotion, which is also typically followed by more interpretable expressions such as smiling following an extremely joyful experience.

Join the conversation

23 Comments sorted by

  1. Adam Schembri

    Associate Professor, Linguistics program, Department of Languages, Histories and Cultures at La Trobe University

    Fascinating stuff, and very useful material for teaching (I teach a course on language and gesture). Some of your examples appear to illustrate quite a specific role for gesture, and in particular the fist pump gesture, but it is not noted here that this action may involve significantly more conventionalised associations between form and meaning than other "body cues". Do you discuss this more elsewhere?

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    1. Justin O'Connor

      Professor of Communications and Cultural Economy at Monash University

      In reply to Adam Schembri

      no, not talking about dualism but the different between 'mind' and the brain as conceived as a set of neuro-logical processes. The mind is different.

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  2. Leslie Newsome

    Senior Lecturer in Psychology (retired)

    As a person born with Cerebral Palsy, albeit mild, I know that emotions can cause excessive body movements which can often be misinterpreted be others, particularly by those who don't know you. This is a big problem for those with more extreme forms of CP which can be exacerbated in attempts to correct the misinterpretations. For example: a fit pumping action may merely mean that the person concerned is trying to grab hold of something.

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  3. Justin O'Connor

    Professor of Communications and Cultural Economy at Monash University

    I think we in the humanities have a lot to learn from science, but also vice versa. The model of emotions on which a lot of these findings are based - 'involuntary' brain responses hard-wired into us - is highly dubious. Why should normal or non-extreme emotions be involuntary and yet extreme emotions give rise to such ambiguity and misinterpretation? Surely from an evolutionary perspective the opposite is the case - in extremis we need the BIG RED FLASHING LIGHT to work fairly unambiguously. It…

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  4. Chris Buchli

    Music Tutor

    Justin - Could you provide and example of a mind which exists without a brain?

    I do agree that the hard-wiring of emotions is dubious, but for different reasons. Some responses are cultural; why, for example, would people rate winning emotions as more positive? People like to win, yet often we learn more from losing than we do from winning (as there is obviously more improvement required to win). Surely learning something new is a positive thing? Our cultural bias toward winning, due to having a competitive society, skews the results, in my non-scientific opinion.

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    1. Justin O'Connor

      Professor of Communications and Cultural Economy at Monash University

      In reply to Chris Buchli

      The question makes no sense. To say the mind is different from the brain is not to say that the mind can exist without the brain.

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  5. Megan Willis

    Lecturer, School of Psychology at Australian Catholic University

    Interesting piece. I have published research that shows exactly the opposite, with faces being considerably more influential and informative than bodies in a social judgement context – that is, with emotions of typical intensity. I think it's important to recognise this is a fairly unique context – and I'd be of the view that after winning a hard fought point that professional tennis players might in fact be experiencing both pain and pleasure simultaneously, which would make it not particularly surprising that their facial signals aren't so straightforward to interpret.

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    1. Adam Schembri

      Associate Professor, Linguistics program, Department of Languages, Histories and Cultures at La Trobe University

      In reply to Megan Willis

      Interesting - Megan, did you have conventionalised gestures ('emblems') in your data?

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    2. Megan Willis

      Lecturer, School of Psychology at Australian Catholic University

      In reply to Megan Willis

      Hi Adam,

      Yes (assuming I'm understanding the terminology correctly). I was looking at angry, happy and neutral poses. So angry poses were typically clenched fists in a fighting pose, happy poses were hands up in the air above the head (sometime with fists). Neutral poses were just standing still essentially.

      If you're interested, you can find the paper here (http://webzoom.freewebs.com/evolutionarycognition/papers/willis.palermo.burke%282011%29.pdf)

      Megan

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    3. Justin O'Connor

      Professor of Communications and Cultural Economy at Monash University

      In reply to Megan Willis

      and yet the facial signals are not at all difficult to interpret for those at the tennis game. What the example shows is that there are no hard-wired emotions.

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    4. Thomas Marshall

      Postgraduate Student

      In reply to Megan Willis

      I'm not across the science but I agree with your point about the unique tennis player example. I have noticed before how hard it is to tell a player's emotions from images or film following a win, because as you say, their emotions are mingled with physical pain. Perhaps a sample of emotions not relating to an immediate sporting outcome would allow more general conclusions to be reached.
      Otherwise I found it to be an interesting article.

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  6. Chris Buchli

    Music Tutor

    Justin - you need to define 'mind' before you get anywhere then. You've said what it's not; what is it? You should have done this to back up your original assertion.

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    1. Justin O'Connor

      Professor of Communications and Cultural Economy at Monash University

      In reply to Chris Buchli

      This is a conversation, it unfolds. Mind is consciousness, or better, self-consciousness. Which is not to say it is a complete transparency to itself, just that it is not reducible to neuro-circuitry, though in fact that is what it is.

      As for saying what is rather than what it is not; actually starting with what it is not is a perfectly appropriate way to go about it.

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  7. Chris Buchli

    Music Tutor

    I didn't say that there's anything wrong with saying what it's not. If you are making assertions about what it is though, you should define what it is!

    I agree that the mind is emergent, but I still don't see how this could emerge out of anything but the brain. If you are making assertions about what the mind is, I assume you understand its nature, so I ask: what is it reducible to and why? What evidence do you have to assert that the mind is emergent from anything but the brain?

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    1. Chris Richardson

      Doctor

      In reply to Chris Buchli

      Prof Justin, you are disavowing dualism (thank goodness!). But getting a bit inane in the process. To say the mind is not the same as the brain, which is self-evident and pointless, is a bit like saying that sight is not the same as an eye. Curiously, you say that the mind is "not reducible to neuro-circuitry, though in fact that is what it is". Leaving aside the apparent self-contradiction in this statement, it's just a big assertion with no evidence. I am equally happy to assert that the mind is in fact reducible to neurocircuitry, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is the case.

      Finally, to suggest that "mind (that is, not the brain) is a central, though not the only, player in emotional displays and response" is to misunderstand that the "mind" and emotions are both epiphenomenon of the same process - the brain in action! And this is where, despite your rejection of it, you are close to dualism.

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  8. Gerald Officer

    Lab rat

    I had better give up.

    "Happy, but would you know it without the fist-pump?..."
    "Agony … no, ecstasy...."
    "If you’re happy and you know it pump your hands...."

    Even WITH the whole photos, I would have associated:
    Happy = 0
    Aggro = 3

    Reckon I have seen those faces & postures on people who either had or were about to commit some violent act upon my person.

    Guess I should rely on the emobot App to run the spacial presentation co-ordinates, but who cares?

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  9. Chloe Adams

    writer

    The emotion that has always intrigued me is the smile.
    While it can't be considered as intense as the tennis players in the images, the smile has a menacing undercurrent (bared teeth, etc). It's like saying 'I can bite you if I want, I have teeth so you had better watch it, mate.'
    When I was studying psychology as an undergrad, there was little said about the smile, other than the usual - that it's universal and so on, like the basic emotional expressions (fear, happiness, etc).

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  10. John Chadderton

    logged in via Facebook

    An interesting article and discussion. It's curious to me that one would look at facial and/or bodily expression in a decontextualised manner i.e. without also considering the whole context of those doing the both the expressing and the interpreting. At the point where someone expresses facially there is typically a wider context beyond their face and their body which further contributes to the interpretive process. If one expanded around an image of a face - say one of those tennis players, and beyond their body and whatever attire might also hold clues, and discovered either a Mac Truck bearing down or the delivery of a large trophy occuring, this would likely help the interpretation. Indeed there are also likely to be cultural elements in both the expressive and interpretive dimension e.g. rites of passage rituals, which if decontextualised could provide hours of misinterperative amusement.

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