What’s in a Face? | I Love Science

What’s in a Face?

This is where things get a bit more interesting and much more complex. For many people, their thoughts will manifest through body language and facial expressions, as previously discussed. Reading facial cues, however, is much more difficult than basic body language. An experienced person can learn to keep their facial expressions under control. All that remains are detectable facial expressions. Some facial expressions are a result of nervousness or anxiety, or even chemical reactions within the body. Reading facial cues is usually often used in relation to determine if we are being manipulated or lied to. This article will discuss the importance of nonverbal communication, particularly facial expressions and how to read them.

1. Anatomy of Expressions The Eyes

The eyes are not called the “windows to the soul” for nothing. If a person’s eyes dart back and forth rather than keep a steady gaze, it most likely indicates extreme discomfort. It is a physical reaction to the internal turmoil of feeling guilty or trapped and shows an innate desire to escape the situation as if they are subconsciously looking for a way out.

Rapid blinking could mean a lie as well, in the absence of any physical or mental ailment. The eyes’ blink rate is determined by the neurotransmitter, dopamine. A person with normal dopamine levels will blink, on average, around 15 times a minute. Heightened stress levels can cause an increase in dopamine in the body. If the person in question does not suffer from addiction or a mental illness such as schizophrenia chances are if their blink rate increases, they are probably lying.

Eye direction when asked a specific question about what was seen, heard, or smelled could also reveal a lie. For instance, if you are interrogating a right-handed person about what he has seen and he looks up and to his right when asked a question it could mean he is trying to get creative with his answer. Looking up and towards the non-dominant side, in this case, to the left, he is legitimately trying to access memory rather than imagination. A left-handed person would, of course, do the opposite. Staring straight ahead could also show a true attempt at recalling a memory. Following the same formula, looking directly at the dominant side when asked what was heard usually means they are about to lie.

When queried about smells and other sensations, a right-handed person will look to his right and down if he is lying.

Watching a person’s eyes when they smile can also indicate how sincere they are. A fake smile will never reach the eyes and will only use the muscles around the mouth. A true smile will travel from the edges of the mouth and cause wrinkles around the eyes.

Pupil dilation is also something to watch out for when detecting physical signs of lying. There is, of course, the environmental reason for pupil dilation due to the lighting in the room. Pupil dilation can also be the result of chemical reactions within the body as the brain works harder to come up with a lie.


According to research, it is more difficult to control the muscles in the upper part of the face. A liar may be able to hide most reactions, possibly even the chemical reactions caused by nervousness, but they may not be able to conceal eyebrow movements. Researches have been able to determine that liars often raise their eyebrows when lying. A furrowed brow tends to indicate the genuine distress of an innocent individual.


High stress not only causes higher levels of dopamine, but it can also dry out the mouth. A dishonest person will most likely lick their lips more as a result of this. They may even subconsciously cover their mouth with their hand as if to hold back deceitful words. The same goes for pursing the lips. Lip pursing can carry different meanings such as anger, frustration, or tension, but it can also be seen as unwillingness to speak, potentially because of the intent to lie.


The head alone sends out its own unique body language. It has a variety of movements such as being lowered, raised, nodded, shook, tilted, and pointed. When a head is lowered, the neck is covered by the chin and could communicate a defensive attitude due to a threat, or even just a perceived threat. In the tilted position it could indicate interest and a desire to further investigate something. It could also mean someone is uncertain, curious, or confused. If it is tilted forward it could mean that person is trying to find a new way of approaching a subject or even an effort to find something new.

When it is raised, it generally alludes to a more confident state of mind. It could also indicate an interest in something. Head nodding could mean a variety of different things: affirmation, agreement, dismissal, or amusement. Head shaking is usually (but not always) associated with negative emotions and can also carry different meanings such as disgust, anger, disbelief, shock, frustration, and even amusement.

2. Micro Expressions

Facial expressions can be categorized into two: Macro and micro-expressions. Macro expressions are genuine expressions that arise from everyday living. If someone jumps out at you from around a corner, you are going to be surprised. The macro-expression is genuine and would last anywhere between half a second to around four seconds. Micro expressions are of much shorter duration, usually only one fifteenth to one twenty-fifth of a second therefore making them much harder to spot and analyze.

History of the Micro Expression Theory

Two psychologists, Ernest Haggard and Kenneth Isaacs, were the first to attempt to explain the existence of micro-expressions in the mid-1960’ s. Back then, they called them “micromomentary” expressions. Their theory was that these minute facial cues were actually the result of repressed feelings and so could not be seen as “real-time” expressions.

However, another psychologist named Paul Ekman proved that if someone had the proper training, they could indeed learn to see these minute expressions as they occurred. Through human studies, Ekman was able to make a connection that micro expressions were often the result of deception. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that these expressions result when individuals try to hide their feelings rather than repress them, as Haggard and Isaacs believed, although both could be true.

Usefulness of Reading Micro Expressions

When a person attempts to hide an emotion, something always “leaks” out. They are unavoidable and involuntary, and technically, anyone can learn to see them. It is just incredibly difficult to do so. Just as with micro-gestures, these expressions may only be detectable via a recording that is analyzed. But, if one could learn to accurately read these expressions without digital help, it would provide them with a significant social advantage.

Microexpressions are the real changes in a person’s emotions. Being able to read them can give you an insight into what a person is truly feeling in that short moment. This skill can also help build more connected relationships. You will be much more in tune with the other person. Some researchers discovered that a person capable of seeing micro expressions are actually more well-liked by their colleagues. They can tell what truly upsets or soothe people. They can tell when they are relaxed and when they are stressed out. This pertinent information made it easier to make connections because they are better able to predict outcomes and to act accordingly to achieve the best possible ones.

This skill can also increase the ability to empathize. If you already know how a person is feeling you can be more sensitive to what they need at a particular moment. It also helps to show when other people are trying to hide their true emotions.

We will be taking a look into five of the seven emotions and their micro expressions: surprise, fear, happiness, anger, and sadness.


Surprise is evident when the eyebrows and upper eyelids are raised. The jaw might drop; more if the surprise is genuine, probably less if not. The lips and mouth may relax as well. This emotion does not last very long. It is important to note if there seems to be prolonged raising of the eyebrows. That could mean fear rather than surprise.


The micro-expressions of fear can be similar to those of surprise. The upper eyelids will rise but the brows, however, tend to draw in together as well as up creating somewhat of a straight line. The mouth may open, and the lips can appear slightly tense and drawn back.


Happiness can be seen on the face when both sides of the mouth come up symmetrically when smiling. The corners of the mouth will twist up to the same height simultaneously.

As we stated earlier, a genuine smile will form wrinkles at the corner of the eyes, as this picture shows.


In anger, both the upper and lower eyelids will tighten. The brows are lowered rather than raised and can create a vertical line between them. The eyes may bulge, or they may form a hard, direct stare. Some people jut their jaws forward, found most often before starting a fight.


Sadness can be seen when the inner corner of the brow is raised, rather than the outer corners or entire brow. The corners of the lips will often draw downward, the jaw may come up, and the lower lip tends to push out. True sadness is actually a very hard emotion to manufacture without actually feeling it to some extent.

These expressions arise from true emotion. Being able to recognize these expressions for what they truly are will be very beneficial when trying to determine whether or not a person is being genuine with their emotion.

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