Eyes And Facial Expressions May Be Biologically Controlled
– Serve A Real Non-Emotional Purpose, Says Research.
Christopher Philip

Normal Eyes

Normal Eyes

Fear Eyes

Fear Eyes

Disgust Eyes

Disgust Eyes

According to a new study release in the journal Psychological Science our facial expressions might be more innately driven than originally thought. According to a study by Adam Anderson, professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, lead researcher, and his colleagues, the eyes, how they squint in disgust, or become wide-eyed in fear, may not be cultural at all – they may have biological origins.

The near-opposite saucer-eyed expression the eyes undergo while afraid versus the squinty condition during disgust may be a way we respond to how our eyes gather and focus light.

According to Anderson, as the eyes widen in fear it boosts the eye’s sensitivity by expanding our field of vision. This in turn permits our eyes to gather more information from perceived threat. In direct contrast, our eyes narrow during disgust, thereby blocking light and sharpening focus to pinpoint the exact source of disgust.

Anderson therefore, believes that facial expressions arose as adaptive strategies as a result of environmental stimuli and not originally as social communication signals. This is not unlike the theory of the evolution of emotion by Charles Darwin advanced in the 19th century.

“These opposing functions of eye widening and narrowing, which mirror that of pupil dilation and constriction, might be the primitive origins for the expressive capacity of the face,” said Anderson. “And these actions are not likely restricted to disgust and fear, as we know that these movements play a large part in how perhaps all expressions differ, including surprise, anger and even happiness.”

Fear and DisgustHe continues, “We tend to think of perception as something that happens after an image is received by the brain, but in fact emotions influence vision at the very earliest moments of visual encoding.”

In reality, however, emotions are a way for people to create a situation conducive to collecting more information. The look of disgust is, in other words, is no evolutionary accident. The senses collect information elucidating disgust, the eyes squint and focus is sharpened to detect the real cause. During fear, on the other hand, the eyes widen, more light is permitted to hit the eye, and the visual field increases in order to collect more information.

“These emotions trigger facial expressions that are very far apart structurally, one with eyes wide open and the other with eyes pinched,” said Anderson, “The reason for that is to allow the eye to harness the properties of light that are most useful in these situations.”

Emotions have a way of filtering things out – it shapes what we see before light even reaches the inner eye.

Future research from Anderson’s lab will center around how contrasting eye movements may explain how facial expressions and nonverbal communication have developed across cultures.

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“We are seeking to understand how these expressions have come to communicate emotions to others,” he said. “We know that the eyes can be a powerful basis for reading what people are thinking and feeling, and we might have a partial answer to why that is.”

Resources

Daniel H. Lee, Reza Mirza, John G. Flanagan and Adam K. Anderson. Optical Origins of Opposing Facial Expression Actions. Psychological Science published online 24 January 2014 DOI: 10.1177/0956797613514451

A version of this article can be found online.

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