Can a husband fake a loving smile to his wife? Can a liar maintain a
seamless mask of sincerity? When does the face reveal what words do not?
Such questions are the stuff of everyday detective work, bedeviling a parent trying to figure out who broke a window or a police officer grilling a suspect. To many, the human face can often be unreadable.
But for Paul Ekman, the face is like a window on the mind, revealing secret, sometimes unconscious emotions. The University of California-San Francisco psychologist has made a 40-year career of deciphering facial expressions and training others to do the same -- and he has helped create a burgeoning field of research.
His scientific career has spanned the worlds of academia, law enforcement and, lately, the ancient art of Buddhist meditation. He has helped police figure out better ways to question suspects and U.S. visa officers discern which would-be visitors might be lying about the nature of their travel plans. He has proved that human facial expressions cut across race and culture. Most recently, at the behest of the world's top Tibetan Buddhist, he developed a program to help Bay Area schoolteachers cultivate emotional balance.
``I think I am the only person in the world who is supported both by the Dalai Lama and the Defense Department,'' Ekman quipped.
Ekman's main scientific contribution has been to show how the face is the mind's involuntary messenger. Even when suppressed or subconscious, emotions make fleeting appearances. These micro-expressions are as brief as one-one-hundred-twenty-fifth of a second. They are too fast for most people to recognize, but they lay bare our true feelings.
To the untrained eye, such micro-expressions may only be visible if slowed down on film. But after an hour of training, Ekman says, even a novice can begin to detect them in real time. Recognizing an emotion, however, doesn't explain everything. A suspect could be experiencing fear because he is lying -- or because he has been framed.
Cuts across race, culture
When Ekman began studying human facial expressions 40 years ago, psychologists still believed that everything we did was learned, rather than instinctual.
A glare, a downcast look or a smile made by an American would be unreadable to someone from New Guinea, according to the behaviorist reasoning of the day.
At 30, Ekman journeyed to the highlands of Papua New Guinea in search of a Stone Age culture whose inhabitants had never been exposed to Western media, and he proved otherwise.
Although they had never seen a Westerner before, New Guineans could easily interpret their expressions. The only confusion arose around fear and surprise -- New Guineans mixed up the two in the Western face, and American college students likewise could not distinguish between the New Guinean's expressions of those two emotions.
Still, Ekman's overall findings confirmed the insights of 19th-century evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin -- that emotional expressions are universal.
In the 1980s, Ekman began studying deception. He wrote a book, ``Telling Lies,'' and before long he was training police officers in the science of reading faces. Ekman, with partners in academia and law enforcement, now teaches at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, he has trained people working in counterterrorism, as well as the people who train the Foreign Service officers in granting visa applications. His training program teaches people how to look for ``hot spots,'' which are indications that a person is conflicted about what he is saying.
J.J. Newberry, a former Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigator who is Ekman's principal law enforcement training partner, said police officers enjoy Ekman as much as he enjoys them.
``He knows how to tell them what they're seeing,'' Newberry said. ``I have seen hard cops, cops who have been around 20, 30 years, say, `Why didn't I have this when I was a rookie?' ''
Feel what we show
Ekman's work has also found that not only do we show what we feel, we also feel what we show. In the 1970s, Ekman and his colleague, Wally Friesen, spent hours making faces while developing what they called the Facial Action Coding System, a compendium of facial expressions that can be used in research on everything from brain disease to love.
After making sad and angry faces, the two men discovered they felt awful. Later research confirmed that certain facial expressions induce emotional states.
A true smile -- one that raises the corners of the mouth and contracts the muscle around the eyes, known as orbicularis oculi -- activates the left temporal and anterior regions of the brain, the same areas that respond when people are happy. But smiling with just the lips, what Ekman calls a false smile, does not.
Researchers found that babies give true smiles to their mothers and false ones to strangers. Likewise, happily married couples greet one another with smiles that reach their eyes, while unhappily married couples use just the lips.
Ekman's work is not without its critics. Some sociologists still have doubts about whether facial expressions cut across all cultures.
But his research had enough cross-cultural appeal to intrigue the Dalai Lama. In 2000, Ekman went to Dharamsala, India, to participate in a scientific meeting with the Dalai Lama on Eastern and Western approaches to destructive emotion.
It wasn't an easy fit at first. Initially, Ekman told friends, his only interest in attending the conference was so his daughter, Eve, could meet the Dalai Lama.
B. Alan Wallace, who attended as a translator, found Ekman rather intimidating.
``I thought, `How do you crack this nut?' '' Wallace recalled. ``He's got a pretty tough shell.''
But Ekman soon warmed to the Tibetan holy man, and he left India with a glow that friends say lasted for months.
``The experience with the Dalai Lama was very mellowing,'' said Maureen O'Sullivan, a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco who has felt the sting of Ekman's anger many times throughout their long collaboration.
The Dalai Lama wanted the scientific meeting to have a practical benefit. When it ended, he gave Ekman $50,000 to develop a program combining Western psychological and Buddhist techniques for countering negative emotions and promoting positive ones.
That program, called Cultivating Emotional Balance, has been turned into a training program for Bay Area schoolteachers, taught by Wallace, a former Buddhist monk, and a psychologist. A pilot program with 15 teachers was held in January and February. Next year, the program will be expanded, and Ekman will oversee a scientific study to see if it is effective.
Researchers will study the participants' brains to see if they are experiencing more positive emotions, as well as their immune systems to see if those improved as people's stress levels decreased.