Thursday, February 4, 2010

Read My Face

It amazes me how much we communicate to each other with just our faces. With all the fine muscles behind them faces can be extremely expressive, so it's not the capability that amazes me. It's the accuracy with which its interpreted. Fundamentally, we rarely see our own faces. We even more rarely see them while they're delivering all these subtle emotional cues. It blows my mind that we operate at this level where I can nonverbally make some facial contortion to represent a rather nuanced emotion and that someone else can understand that.

We never took facial communication classes where we all sat in front of mirrors practicing our vocabulary. No, we learned this all in the wild. And we started pretty young. It's never been intuitive to me that babies learn the complexities of speech long before they learn to not poo themselves. But they're picking up and delivering facial cues well before they start babbling. So really the language of the face is the first mode of communication we learn. This stuff is deeply ingrained in us.

Since we can't see ourselves, all of this has to be learned by making a face and judging reactions. Maybe we will just invent some combination of muscle contractions that seem to represent our inner state, but it's more likely that we're copying a face that we've someone else make. Which, since we can't see ourselves and judge the success rate, could have hilariously bad execution.

There are some smiles that are cold, forced, and unbelievable; there are others that are delightfully contagious. Some of this may have to with aptitude, but a lot of it has to do with the honesty of the emotions behind what's being presented. I'm sure that the good actors spend an absurd amount of time in front of a mirror learning how to lie with their face (so either they had raw talent, or they're just narcissistic?).

I wonder sometimes how well I filter what I'm feeling inside to what my face is projecting outside. I don't know of course because you can see it and I can't. If I'm feeling something powerful, can I repress it? If there's something I dislike, my instincts tell me to make a foul face. If it's something small, my cultural filters kick in and I can prevent the emotion from making it my face and being inappropriate. But if the emotion is stronger it becomes more and more difficult to not wear that on my face. And if it's strong enough, there's no stopping it. If I feel love, how can that not be read in the details big and small written all over my face? Even my eyes alone are going to carry a message that clear. But with the whole face in concert? For something that big you're going to get communication on all open channels.

Love is obviously an emotion that we rarely have a reason to repress, but there are plenty of things that we do need to keep from making it to the surface. There are all sorts of things flying through our heads, and every one of them shouldn't vent out through the face. Well, unless you want to look like the crazy person that you are on the inside. So it is that we've all developed a controlled path from emotion to facial communication; we all have filters, conscious or unconscious. We have some knowledge of our facial vocabulary and are making decisions about which faces to put forth based on proven effectiveness and relevance to the situation.

Although our potential vocabulary is large, it's always being refined by the reaction we see in other people. When we make a face, we're looking for the reaction face in other people. If we perceive that reaction to be positive, we're more likely to use that face in the future. Or maybe their positive reaction causes us to return a positive reaction, and it all cycles until we're just standing their grinning like idiots.

I don't know where I'm going with this. The topic just completely fascinates me. How much of myself is projected with completely subconscious imprecise facial communication? How accurate is what I put out there? Can everything I'm thinking be plainly read on my face? I really have no clue how well I communicate what I'm feeling, or how well I conceal the thoughts and emotions I don't want other people to see. I can know what I'm saying, because I also have ears. But I have no idea what my face is telling you.