Anyone who has been in my class has probably heard me say, “You have
an interesting expression on your face” as a way to solicit the idea I
saw brewing there. One student even made a T-shirt with that written
on it and then the class talked about how it functioned as a way to
open conversations. Being able to read faces is essential knowledge to
living in a world of people. Face expert Paul Ekman says it’s key to
determining the danger or safety of our surroundings. We see how
people feel about what they see behind us. Others broaden our
perspective with what we can’t see for ourselves. We see a certain
expression and know from the inside what that means. Powerful response
instincts geared to survival are hard wired in. So we see and respond
to facial expressions unconsciously even where they are not and it
affects our assessments. A while ago there was a study looking at how
people reacted to the different grills of cars which until the study
tended to have shapes that were wider in the middle and slanted down
from there. When they reversed it and had grills that slanted up at
the outside, more like a smile people judged the car as better made.
They generally weren’t aware of the facial expression quality but just
got a better feeling from it. The knowledge we gain from faces is
applied in other contexts often unconsciously and inappropriately.
Being aware of this influence helps us interpret non-verbal
information more accurately.
When it comes to right hemisphere knowledge, nothing matches the
sophistication of facial expressions. We recognize thousands. Visual
understanding is very specific. The advice to spend lots of time face
gazing with newborns makes sense now that we understand how dependent
seeing is on what we’ve seen before, knowing what we’re looking for,
having inner templates for recognizing the outside world. It’s what
babies are looking for and why they’re so entertained by people making
faces at them. They’re learning a way of relating to the world packed
with information. Making faces at a baby lays a foundation for better
reading of this important resource throughout life.
The differences in others perspectives afford us a view not available
where we stand. We construct a more accurate picture when we take more
views into consideration. We’re coming out of an age of right and
wrong and into a time when we value the difference in point of view as
enlarging our own perspective. We so often wall ourselves up in the
themes playing out in our heads. The holidays are an opportunity to
drink in the available non-verbal information available in the faces
of our friends and relatives. There’s so much to be seen in a face.