“The face of man is the index to joy and mirth, to severity and sadness.” That was the observation of Pliny the Elder, 19 centuries ago. Now comes Paul Eckman, a professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, to announce to a meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science that “you become what you put on your face.” Eckman’s summation may lack some of Pliny’s elegance, but it does provide a useful insight into how emotions can be manipulated.
Working first with actors and then with students, Eckman found that the cause-and-effect relationship between emotions and facial expressions can be turned around. In other words, not only may the face reflect the physical effects of emotions, but facial expressions can also work to trigger those effects. Looks of fear, anger, amusement, disgust, sadness, surprise and contempt, if properly feigned, can activate the same bodily reactions as when those emotions are genuinely experienced. Such things as heart rate, respiration and muscle tension can be affected by adopting certain facial expressions.
It has, of course, long been known that emotions trigger all kinds of bodily reactions, some of which can be demonstrably destructive over time--even deadly. More recently closer attention has been given to the beneficial effects of some emotions. A few years ago Norman Cousins wrote a book describing how he chuckled his way back to health from an apparently fatal illness. Deliberately sought laughter brought Cousins first relief from pain and eventually recovery. And everyone has had the experience of distracting an unhappy, crying infant by making funny faces. Amuse the kid and, provided that the diaper is dry and the tummy comfortably filled, inner peace can usually be restored.
Of course, social conventions often require feigned facial expressions. We smile at contemptibly bad jokes, we pretend to be calm in situations that provoke anger or disgust, we assume a look of utter indifference when the airliner takes off and that little voice inside screams, “It will never make it!” Maybe, in a lot of cases anyway, this facial insincerity is all to the good. If Eckman and his colleagues are right, there apparently are times when putting on a phony expression can be used to keep the innards from getting too stirred up. It’s a happy thought.