Photographs of facial expressions from ‘Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine’ (1862) by Guillaume Duchenne

Face the facts

Are facial expressions universal?

We draw important information from people’s faces and facial expressions. It is said that the route to a person’s soul is through their eyes. There is much truth in that, as we get considerable information about people’s moods and feelings from their faces, particularly the eyes.

We seem to have specific modules in the brain for recognising faces, so they are obviously important to us. When we recognise someone it is usually by their face and not, for example, their body posture. People who cannot recognise faces are said to have prosopagnosia. Even sheep seem to recognise other sheep by their faces.

The presence of a face-recognition module could also explain why we tend to ‘see’ faces in a slice of toast or the surface of the moon – the brain interprets face-like patterns of light and shade as a genuine face.

Charles Darwin proposed that some facial expressions were common to all humanity – people laugh the same way, even in isolated populations. We can all tell when someone is happy or sad or angry from the expression on their face (although this ability is not well-developed in children, it generally improves as we get older).

More recent research supports this idea. A team of social psychologists followed athletes at the 2004 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece and observed that athletes that were congenitally blind (from birth) and as well as those who were blinded later in life showed the same facial expressions upon winning and losing as the sighted athletes.

There are suggestions that, as well as the stereotyped major expressions, there are many ‘micro-expressions’. The brain picks these up subconsciously but they too convey meaning, enabling us to make accurate predictions about a person’s character in less than a second.

Our expressions give away information, but so does the basic structure of our face. Sex, age and ethnicity can all be assessed from faces. A masculine face is very different from a feminine one. Even our sense of beauty is strongly linked to facial features – a symmetrical face is usually seen as more attractive.

Through the ages people have tried to take this further and infer character traits from faces. Was there a ‘criminal face’ that could be used to identify possible miscreants? Despite a huge amount of effort, no convincing links have ever been found.

Lead image:

Photographs of facial expressions, some of which Charles Darwin used in his own work.

‘Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine’ (1862) by Guillaume Duchenne CC BY


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Genetics and genomics, Physiology, Psychology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development