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A microexpression is a brief, involuntary facial expression shown on the face of humans according to emotions experienced. They usually occur in high-stakes situations, where people have something to lose or gain. Unlike regular facial expressions, it is difficult to fake microexpressions. Microexpressions express the seven universal emotions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and contempt. However in the 1990s Paul Ekman expanded his list of basic emotions, including a range of positive and negative emotions not all of which are encoded in facial muscles. These emotions are amusement, contempt, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, pride, satisfaction, pleasure, and shame.[1][2] They are very brief in duration, lasting only 1/25 to 1/15 of a second.[3]


Microexpressions were first discovered by Haggard and Isaacs. In their 1966 study, Haggard and Isaacs outlined how they discovered these "micromomentary" expressions while "scanning motion picture films of psychotherapy hours, searching for indications of non-verbal communication between therapist and patient"[4]This reprint edition of Ekman and Friesen's breakthrough research on the facial expression of emotion uses scores of photographs showing emotions of surprise, fear, disgust, contempt, anger, happiness, and sadness. The authors of Unmasking the Face explain how to identify these basic emotions correctly and how to tell when people try to mask, simulate, or neutralize them.

In the 1960s, William S. Condon pioneered the study of social interactions at the fraction-of-a-second level. In his famous research project, he scrutinized a four-and-a-half-second film segment frame by frame, where each frame represented 1/25th second. After studying this film segment for a year and a half, he discerned interactional micromovements, such as the wife moving her shoulder exactly as the husband's hands came up, which combined yielded microrhythms.[5]

Years after Condon's study, American psychologist John Gottman began video-recording living relationships to study how couples interact. By studying participants' facial expressions, Gottman was able to correlate expressions with which relationships would last and which would not.[6] Gottman's 2002 paper makes no claims to accuracy in terms of binary classification, and is instead a regression analysis of a two factor model where skin conductance levels and oral history narratives encodings are the only two statistically significant variables. Facial expressions using Ekman's encoding scheme were not statistically significant.[7] In Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink", which was written many years after "Emotional Intelligence" already brought Gottman's work to the attention of the public, Gottman states that there are four major emotional reactions that are destructive to a marriage: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism, and contempt. Among these four, Gottman considers contempt the most important of them all.[8]

Types of Microexpressions

  • Simulated Expressions: When a micro expression is not accompanied by a genuine expression.
  • Neutralized expressions: When a genuine expression is suppressed and the face remains neutral.
  • Masked Expressions: When a genuine expression is completely masked by a falsified expression.[9]

Facial Action Coding System (FACS)

The Facial Action Coding System or FACS is used to identify facial expression. This identifies the muscles that produce the facial expressions. To measure the muscle movements the action unit (AU) was developed. This system measures the relaxation or contraction of each individual muscle and assigns a unit. More than one muscle can be grouped into an Action Unit or the muscle may be divided into separate action units. The score consists of duration, intensity and asymmetry. This can be useful in identifying depression or measurement of pain in patients that are unable to express themselves.

Wizards Project

Main article: Wizards Project

Most people do not seem to perceive microexpressions in themselves or others. In the Wizards Project, previously called the "Diogenes Project", Drs. Paul Ekman and Maureen O'Sullivan studied the ability of people to detect deception. Of the thousands of people tested, only a select few were able to accurately detect when someone was lying. The Wizards Project researchers named these people "Truth Wizards". To date, the Wizards Project has identified just over 50 people with this ability after testing nearly 20,000 people.[10] Truth Wizards use microexpressions, among many other cues, to determine if someone is being truthful. Scientists hope by studying wizards that they can further advance the techniques used to identify deception.


The neurotoxin, Botulinum toxin, commonly known as Botox, is used in the medical cosmetic treatment] of dystonia (involuntary muscle contractions) but it is also helpful in concealing unconscious facial microexpression. Neurotoxins operate by interfering with the normal signalling between nerve cells, in the case of Botox by inhibiting the release of a neurotransmitter. There are many different kinds of nerves, but the botulinum toxin attaches to nerves that control muscles (peripheral motor neurons). The botulinum toxin prevents the nerve from sending its chemical signal to the muscle, so in turn preventing the muscle from contracting. In the brain the difference between a conscious "lie" and a conscious "truth" is a difference in neurological pathways. These different pathways connect to different motor neurons, hence the twitching eye of the liar. Applied with the correct precision, Botulinum toxin can be used to specifically clog the "lying" pathways without hampering the "truthful" pathways. [verification needed]

See also


  1. Paul Ekman (1999). Basic Emotions. In T. Dalgleish and M. Power (Eds.). Handbook of Cognition and Emotion. Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  2. P. Ekman, “Facial Expressions of Emotion: an Old Controversy and New Findings”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, B335:63--69, 1992
  4. Haggard, E. A., & Isaacs, K. S. (1966). Micro-momentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. In L. A. Gottschalk & A. H. Auerbach (Eds.), Methods of Research in Psychotherapy (pp. 154-165). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  7. Gottman, J. and Levenson, R.W., (2002). A Two-Factor Model for Predicting When a Couple Will Divorce: Exploratory Analyses Using 14-Year Longitudinal Data, Family Process, 41 (1), p. 83-96
  8. Gladwell, Malcolm (2005). Blink, Chapter 1, Section 3, The Importance of Contempt
  9. Godavarthy, Sridhar Microexpression spotting in video using optical strain. Web. URL accessed on 15 June 2011.
  10. Camilleri, J., Truth Wizard knows when you've been lying", Chicago Sun-Times, January 21, 2009

Further reading


External links:

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