Twenty-two emotions are written on our faces

People’s features express more feelings than scientists thought

MAKING FACES  Human faces are more expressive than scientists gave them credit for. By mixing and matching the six classically recognized facial expressions (happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear and disgust), scientists have opened up a new category of expressions for compound emotions, such as “happily surprised” (top left) and “angrily disgusted” (bottom middle).

S. Du et al/PNAS 2014

Human faces just got a lot more emotional.

People can broadcast more than three times as many different feelings on their faces as scientists once suspected. For years, scientists have thought that people could convey only happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear and disgust.

“I thought it was very odd to have only one positive emotion,” says cognitive scientist Aleix Martinez of Ohio State University in Columbus.

So he and colleagues came up with 16 combined ones, such as “happily disgusted” and “happily surprised.” Then the researchers asked volunteers to imagine situations that would provoke these emotions, such as listening to a gross joke, or getting unexpected good news.

When the team compared pictures of the volunteers making different faces and analyzed every eyebrow wrinkle, mouth stretch and tightened chin, “what we found was beyond belief,” Martinez says. For each compound emotion, almost everyone used the same facial muscles, the team reports March 31 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Martinez’s team’s findings could one day help computer engineers improve facial recognition software and help scientists better understand emotion-perception disorders such as schizophrenia.

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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