Though many scientists believe that facial expressions are nothing more than signs of independent social communication, some have a different take on it, explaining that they are a universal principle based on necessity. Charles Darwin, for example, believed that the eyes show the evolution of emotions and that changes in facial expressions they were necessary for survival. A team of researchers recently set out to test this theory to see how people gather information using emotions.
Though today people use facial expressions as social signals, letting other know how they feel without having to verbally express their emotions, that is not how they originated. Adam Anderson, a professor of human development at Cornell’s college of Human Ecology believes that facial expressions are much more than social interactions. He states that the evolution of emotions began as an adaptation to the environment.
He and his colleagues set out to prove just that. Their study looked at two common facial expression that show the evolution of emotions, the wide-eyed look of fear and the narrow-eyed look of disgust. Anderson’s study confirms Darwin’s earlier theory on the evolution of emotions, proving that facial expressions, particularly changes in the eyes, show the evolution of emotions and that they began as a survival technique.
To test their theory, researchers from Cornell University first created a model based on the changes of the opposing eye expressions. Then they studied 24 volunteer undergraduates from the University of Toronto using standard eye exam equipment. Volunteers were asked to show fear and disgust. The test confirmed that more light was filtered in when the wide-eyed look of fear was expressed and less light was let in when the eyes narrowed in disgust.
The eyes enlarge when people feel fear, which allows more light into the cornea to help determine if there is a threat. When the eyes narrow, on the other hand, as they do when people squint if they feel disgusted, it allows less light into the cornea to increase concentration and to be able to better focus on something.
Anderson said that facial expressions are actually caused by pupil dilation and constriction. He added that the widening and narrowing of the eyes are not linked exclusively to feelings of fear or disgust. The movements, he explained, are not limited to these emotions, but also have a role in other expressions, such as anger, shock, joy and sorrow.
He and his colleagues explained that while the general understanding is that people react to things after they see them, they actually use emotions to create their own reality of how they see things. In other words, emotions control how people react when they see something, thus altering their perception. Therefore, they claim the eyes are not only the window to the soul, but a key component in the evolution of emotions.
Thanks to the results of the study and what they now know about how facial expressions have been derived from the evolution of emotions, the scientists are able to take the research to the next level. Taking it a step further, Anderson is now studying how facial expressions have shaped the evolution of nonverbal communication.
By Tracy Rose