Dr's Casebook: How good are we at judging emotional expressions?

​​A couple of months ago I visited Down House south of London, the former home of Charles Darwin, the great Victorian scientist who developed his Theory of Evolution.
Darwin concluded that there are basically only six basic facial expressions.Darwin concluded that there are basically only six basic facial expressions.
Darwin concluded that there are basically only six basic facial expressions.

Dr Keith Souter writes: In his study there were copies of Origin of Species, as well as some of his other works.

I was particularly interested in a book he wrote in 1872, entitled The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

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I was intrigued by it, because one of his main collaborators was Dr James Crichton-Browne, a leading Victorian psychiatrist, who happened to be the medical director of the West Riding Lunatic Asylum in Wakefield.

In the book Darwin concludes that there are basically only six basic facial expressions.

He did so by sending detailed questionnaires to doctors, like Dr Crichton-Browne who saw a vast range of emotions.

He concluded that these six basic facial expressions are common to all humans regardless of their race or place of origin.

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They are the emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust.

Researchers in Geneva published a study of people’s confidence in interpreting emotions.

They also looked at which parts of the brain were involved in the process.

They asked 34 people to judge emotional expressions on 128 photographs, each of which was framed by two horizontal bars of varying thickness.

Some expressions were very clear, others were ambiguous.

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On each photograph they had to judge which of the two bars was thickest.

Finally, they had to assess their confidence in making the judgements about emotions and about the bar thickness on a scale of one to six.

Thus they gave a confidence in reading emotions and a confidence in visual perception.

Fascinatingly, people felt more confident in judging expressions than in judging visual perception.

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However, they actually made more errors in expression recognition than in perceiving the size of the bars.

When they looked at functional MRI scans of the participants during the process they found that different parts of the brain are involved.

The visual perception judgement lit up the visual pathways and frontal parts of the brain, whereas expression judgement involved the parts associated with deep memories.

Our past experience seems to affect our ability to interpret expressions.

However, this study suggests we are often less good at it than we expect.

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