Facial expressions not learned

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Facial expressions not learned

I'm surprised though that nobody did this years ago, it seems like an obvious way to find out.

The facial expressions we make to show or hide our
emotions are hardwired into our brains rather than learned during life,
a study has concluded.

Blind and sighted athletes made the same expressions when they won and lost, US researchers found.

This, the study reported in the Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology study suggests, meant the expressions were not picked
up by watching others.



It seems to be that blind people's facial expressions can be just as influenced by the environment as sighted people's.  Expressions (facial) might be shaped by the feedback provided in social/personal interactions. Particulary in the case of how one might facially express winning and losing.


It seems to me I've heard or read of a fair bit along these lines, but yes, a little surprised that they're saying it's the "first" of its kind. Found the article, but through another link - yours didn't work for me.

"Losers pushed their lower lip up as if to control the emotion on
their face and many produced social smiles," Matsumoto said.
"Individuals blind from birth could not have learned to control their
emotions in this way through visual learning so there must be another


WendyL makes a good point. I am "face blind". I pay  no attention to people's facial expressions. I don't see or interpret them. As far as that goes, I may as well be blind. Yet I am convinced that I have learned to control my facial expressions in certain ways. In fact, I can remember people saying things that indicated to me that I needed to give my facial muscles a different configuration. 

Sometimes I think the people who do these studies would benefit from a class in critical thinking or something along those lines.


martin dufresne

I am fascinated. How did you become aware of this, RosaL? Is it a common condition? Is it a matter of not seeing these expressions or of not "paying attention" as you write, not heeding them? Could there be an element of choice therein? And what do you intuit the link to be with your own lack of "giving" appropriate (or any) facial expressions? Is there any spillover effect in verbal or written detection/expression?


martin dufresne wrote:
I am fascinated. How did you become aware of this, RosaL? Is it a common condition? Is it a matter of not seeing these expressions or of not "paying attention" as you write, not heeding them? Could there be an element of choice therein? And what do you intuit the link to be with your own lack of "giving" appropriate (or any) facial expressions? Is there any spillover effect in verbal or written detection/expression?

Thank you for being interested, Martin. I'll have to give this a little thought and I need to finish something else tonight. (I've been procrastinating by reading and posting to babble!) I'll write a reply tomorrow.  


I really don't believe there is no social conditioning, unless the blind people live in a cave. I know blind people who have learnt to watch out for "blindisms" (tics that bother sighted people and induce them to view the blind person as also slow-witted).

A dear (sighted) friend of mine smiles very broadly exposing her gums. I find that a very aggressive expression. I imagine my mum took me to task for doing that, and other things, at an age when I don't even remember it. "La bella figura" and all that.


Non-verbal communication, which includes facial expression, is an area in which some people really have a hard time -- it's known as Non-verbal Learning Disorder. There is a lot of information about this LD at www.nldontheweb.org, more specifically on facial expression at in the sub-section "Social": http://www.nldontheweb.org/thompson-1.htm.

I recognize that not all people who have a tough time with reading and interpreting facial expressions are dealing with NLD but there are some who may be dealing with the whole constellation of difficulties.



That's true. But I don't have NLD.


remind remind's picture

Still no time to answer rosa?


"watching the tide roll away"


I'm sorry. I'm been unpacking and someone came to help me move furniture so I had to take advantage of that! I'll answer sometime tonight or tomorrow morning. 


I didn't become aware of this until I read about it. I suppose one reason is that it's not so extreme that I can't recognize anybody. (There are people unable to recognize members of their immediate families: parents or children, brothers or sisters.) A second reason is that I wasn't aware that my experience in this respect was unusual, though I was acutely aware of being "unusual" in other ways! I learned about face-blindness as I learned about other aspects of my autism.

I suspect there is a definite link to my own failure to exhibit "appropriate" facial expressions. I suspect the whole thing is neurologically based. I would say that I have now learned to exhibit the kinds of facial expressions people expect (It remains a mystery to me, though, that so many people will assume that you're happy just because you're smiling. Smiling is a simple matter of muscle control and you don't need to be happy to do it. I suspect it's just easier for people to believe that other people are happy.)

I have learned, through reading, that it's important to look people in the eye - not constantly, but intermittently. I have also learned to "face people" when I talk to them or they to me. Neither of these matters to me in the slightest, but I do them for the sake of other people, to whom they matter.

Although I don't "read" faces, I have learned to read people in other ways, much as a blind person would. I am middle-aged now and have been working pretty hard all my life. At this point, I think I have become quite good at it (and in fact I "work with people", as the expression goes).

It takes me a long time to learn to recognize people, but I do eventually learn to do this. I have trouble with movies: like many people with my condition, I use hair as a "marker" and watching a movie, I have no idea if there is/are one or five or thirty-three blond female characters, for example. I once showed a movie to a group of 12 year olds. I was teaching a class and had previewed the movie first. These kids commented on everything and the whole experience was extremely instructive for me. They would point out that a person in one scene was the same person we had seen in a previous scene. I had had no idea - it's amazing what a difference things like that can make to a story!

I can interpret the ‘emoticons' fairly well (which surely indicates that I've learned something over the years), though I appreciate the ‘tool tips'Wink



I have two sons with Aspergers. To varying degrees, one more than the other, they have difficulty reading facial cues.


Caissa wrote:
I have two sons with Aspergers. To varying degrees, one more than the other, they have difficulty reading facial cues.

Thanks for mentioning that, Caissa.

My own experience is that it's not necessary to learn to read facial cues - there are so many other cues one can learn to read. On the other hand, if a person can learn to read facial cues, maybe there's some point to it - I don't know. (I think it's just possible that I may be beginning to learn this. I'll get back to you in about 10 years!)

I do sometimes think that I am less easily misled by people, since I don't rely on facial expression.



remind remind's picture

Thanks very much Rosa, incredibly interesting to someone who is very good at reading facial expressions and recognizing someone they have only seen once, and very briefly at that. In fact, it could explain a comment to me that was made long ago by an RCMP officer, that was perhaps not as racially bigoted as I first thought.

Moreover, as I have started designing independant living programs, a branch out for me from other mental health independant living programs, for those with severe autism and Aspergers, I will definitely include this aspect as a possible factor in their needed requirements and considerations.


"watching the tide roll away"

ElizaQ ElizaQ's picture

 Rosa that's really interesting thanks for explaining it in such detail.

  To maybe add a bit to the discussion about some of the neurology that could be  at play,  there are differences in the ways that people process information and learn.  Generalized there's proprioceptive, auditory and visual paths-  physical/doing, hearing and seeing.  Most people have some sort of combination of the three though do tend to lean towards one way more with some combination being much more common (thus 'normal' ) then others. 

  I actually first came across this in applied manner while teaching snowboarding and learning how to actually teach a good lesson to a group of people.  The lesson should be geared to the people involved and the type of learning that was exhibited.  It was an area that I became quite interested, looked into more outside of the snowboard lessons, particulary in school.  

  What I discovered about myself has been quite enlightening. For years when I was conversing with people I would run into trouble for not looking people in the eye or responding with my own body language as if I was interested,  being shy or in worst cases submissive.   People said I would look away, fidget and in some cases look like I was plain old bored.  I also had trouble recognizing things like facial expression, emotions and body language when people were talking.  I couldn't figure it out because on most occasions  I was interested and from my perspective was quite engaged with whatever they were saying.   It also didn't make sense because I didn't have problems recognizing body language or expressions if I was merely watching people from afar. I can read a crowd or a group quite easily. I can read body language and expression in pictures and film with no problem.  I have great facial recall overall.   I would also get in trouble for things like doodling in class, or looking out the window as indicating that I wasn't paying attention even though if the teacher went further and asked me a question regarding the information I could answer it no problem.  I also had trouble doing my notes in the required fashion and unless totally focused on the technical aspects they'd end up full of pictures, squiggly lines and spirals and words not seemingly connected with each other. 

 I finally figured it out after reading an article about learning paths and doodling. When it comes to  processing speech in particular  my auditory and proprioceptive paths take over with an emphasis on proprioceptive.   I process auditory information in a physical manner.  The article talked about doodling in class as being a manifestion of that.  It was a bit of an ahah moment as well as some vindication for my 'doodle' detentions  because it  also can explain my behavior in conversation.  When I looked away, stared at the wall, fidgeted it wasn't disinterest being manifested but interest. I had to be 'doing' something to get the info into my head and work through it.    The more serious and intense the information the more supposed disinterest I would show.   After that I tried some personal experiments.  When talking to someone I'd purposely try to focus on the visual cues and communication. I didn't have much problem with understanding that but had problems focusing on the auditory at the same time. I'd be able to see what they were saying but miss a lot of what they were saying.  I have problems doing both at once.

 The article also talked about yawning as another manifestation of proprioceptive processing in action.  It's linked to the need of getting more oxygen to the brain as well as just the body reacting physically.  It talked about a typical lecture hall situation where it's quite common to see people yawning.  For the most part yawning is  looked at socially with connection to people just being bored and trying to stay awake, which is true in many if not the majority of cases.   The point though was that it's not always the case.  That explained a lot about me as well.  Before I read that I did notice I yawned a lot when listening to things like lectures it was pointed out by friends and the like.   I also yawn a lot when I read books or text to the point where my husband will say 'Geez if you're tired why don't you go to bed?'  In worst cases I will actually yawn when in deep conversation with someone. (Talk about a social faux pas!!)  After reading that article  I did notice that the more interested I was in the subject and information the more I would yawn.  For me at least if I wasn't yawning in a lecture or doodling or doing something more physical that was an indication of boredom with what I was listening too then sitting quietly and just watching the teacher or speaker.  

 I found this awareness quite instructive as well because now I could actually work with it and explain it to people if necessary because it does fall into the less common category.  I think it actually might be the least common.    I've had to do that with my husband  as in the beginning or our relationship  there were times when he would get quite perturbed when he was trying to talk about something important and to him I would look like I wasn't 'listening' to him.   The awareness has also helped me in other situations because I have worked consciously at the visuals I'm communicating, like looking people in the eye and calming other body language like fidgeting. That's gotten easier over time but for me it's a conscious effort at reprograming how my brain actually works. It doesn't feel totally natural.

   Whenever I read or  am in a situation when talking is involved like a meeting I always make sure I have a doodle pad for the squiggles.  I don't bother trying to take notes that make sense to other people.  Learning about mindmapping was a godsend for me. 

 Proprioceptive learners are also really adept at connecting the physical environment with information.  In class I would always try to get in the same seat, especially for tests.  In my minds eye I could actually reconnect specific information with my location, even to the point where I could recall information from a particular day by remembering how or where I was sitting or that when that economic fact was spoken I was leaning back in the chair and that the room was overally stuffy that morning. To this day I can recall certain classes or lectures by focusing on  "refeeling" what my pen felt like scratching out a particular doodle or series of words on the paper.   I taught myself tricks that connected the information with a specific physical action.  Want to remember the causes of World War II? When reading it or hearing it I would tap my fingers in a certain way.  In the test, tap them the same way or even just remember tapping them.  If I'm working on a public speech I get up and walk around while talking. When doing the speech I don't have to actually recreate the walk physically but use the physical memory of that walking as way of recalling.  I realized that I recall faces and people with a physical memory of where I was or what I was doing when I saw them or with what they were physically doing when I saw them.  

Smell is another one and something I learned to use with great success.  Each subject had it's own smell.  Economics - rosemary, polysci - vanilla and ecology- pine.  I'd have a little bottle in class, would study the specific subjects with the scent and use it in tests as a recall tool.  I use rulers or my finger on a page to get through particularly complex text in a book because it's tactile. I read out loud or physically mouth the words.  The only way to explain it is that I 'feel' what I'm reading.    Once I figured all of this out my capacity for learning greatly improved and I actually found I could process info not only faster but have to spend less time doing it.   I just had to get over that some people who see me in action just think it's socially weird.   

 The other thing that I have noticed is that when I write my recall is recognizably better if I write with pen and paper rather then a computer. Even though a computer makes things like spellchecking and editing way easier and saves time I do tend to do at least my first drafts or take notes using pen and paper.  I just simply remember way more.   

 I actually wish that information about this area was more widely available and understood.  In schools especially it's important.  I think there are many people who try to navigate through learning or being told this is how you should learn (no doodling, sit still, look at me!!!) that's directed at ways of processing that are more common.  I think sometimes when I read about kids who get labeled as 'overactive' or diagnosed with things like ADHD that the neurology behind how they process information might be a part of it in some cases and if given the proper information or tools might fare better.  Maybe there are people looking at this already I just haven't really looked. 

 After learning about all of this I don't look at other peoples reactions or body language when I communicating the same way either.  That person I'm talking to too and not looking at me or fidgeting or yawning yes might just be bored and want to run away but they could also be similar to me.