Read my face

Whether or not the face is the ‘window to the soul’, it certainly can provide a way to assess someone’s internal state

Four different facial expressions

Expressions are created by the action of specific muscles in the face. These were tested by the French doctor Duchenne de Boulogne, who in the 19th century used electric currents to stimulate muscles and re-create particular expressions (top). Similar approaches have also been taken by artists (bottom).


The Varieties of Human Facial expression, 12-bit version by Arthur Elsenaar and Remko Scha, videography by Josephine Jasperse

There are seven universally recognised emotions shown through facial expressions: fear, anger, surprise, contempt, disgust, happiness and sadness. This universality was noted by Charles Darwin, among others. (See Face the facts for more.)

Expressions depend on the characteristic arrangement of facial features, which can be ‘read’ by observers, though some are easier to identify than others (surprise and fear are often hard to tell apart). Face-reading skills appear very early. Even seven-month-old infants pay more attention to fearful faces.

In fact, fear appears to be a very powerful expression. We recognise fear in someone’s face even before we have identified who that person is, and even subconscious detection of fearful faces can profoundly influence our behaviour, much more so than subconscious detection of other emotions.

Fear processing is associated with activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that plays a key role in developing responses to sensory information like sound and pain.

The importance of facial expressions reflects the importance of social communication to humans. Our success as a species has depended on our ability to cooperate and act together. A key aspect of our cognitive powers is our ability to judge what others are thinking and hence how they might act.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Neuroscience, Psychology
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development