Sculptures hint at universal facial expressions

G rimaces, scowls and doting gazes of ancient human sculptures indicate that there are universal facial expressions that signal the same emotions across cultures, researchers argue.Faces depicted in sculptures crafted between 3,500 and 600 years ago in Mexico and Central America convey five varieties of emotion to Westerners today, say computational neuroscientist Alan Cowen and psychologist Dacher Keltner, both of the University of California, Berkeley. Present-day folks, and likely members of ancient American societies as well, anticipate that each of these emotional expressions occurs in particular social situations, the scientists report in Science Advances.As participants in the new study predicted just by looking at the faces of sculpted individuals, pain expressions characterized sculptures of people being tortured, expressions combining determination and strain accompanied heavy lifting, angry faces occurred in combat, elated expressions appeared in people being held or embraced and sad faces typified individuals in defeat.That link between ancient and modern groups “provides strong support for universality and genetic origins of these [particular] emotion expressions,” says psychologist Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
One expression common across cultures may be exemplified by the howl of pain on the sculpted face of this torture victim, researchers say. This artifact, found in southern Mexico, dates to between around 1,100 and 1,300 years ago.Baltimore Museum of Art, Kerr Portfolio 2868, photo by J. Kerr
These findings suggest that facial expressions have evolved to convey a richer variety of emotions than scientists have often assumed, Cowen says. For instance, a well-known system that categorizes seven basic emotions communicated by the same facial expressions in all cultures does not include expressions of pain and of the combination of determination and strain.Although Cowen and Keltner deserve credit for taking a novel approach to studying facial expressions, the results won’t quell debate over whether certain expressions communicate the same meaning across cultures, says psychologist Deborah Roberson of the University of Essex in England.English speakers today hold consistent assumptions about how emotional facial expressions should be deployed, as the new study shows, Roberson says. But ancient American cultures likely put distinctive spins on nonverbal emotional communication that researchers today may never be able to recognize, she contends.Yale University psychologist Maria Gendron agrees. Even today, emotional meanings of faces may not translate across cultures, she says. For instance, Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea perceive anger and threat in the same wide-eyed, gasping faces that Westerners view as expressions of fear.People living in small, relatively isolated communities, such as Himba farmers and herders in southern Africa, often rank facial emotions differently than Westerners do if asked to describe on their own what a facial expression shows, Roberson says. In such traditional societies, everybody knows each other well, so there is no need to assume that facial expressions reflect particular emotional states, she argues. “If someone is mean and grouchy most of the time, you are likely to be wary of them even when they’re smiling.”

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