Introducing Elly Smallwood: Faces
I love faces. I love their skin, the muscles beneath it; love the way it twists and contorts with emotion. I love the unconscious flickers that mar it’s surface. Our faces spell out our innermost thoughts for those able to decipher their movements. For the last year or so I’ve studied faces constantly, trying to decipher their every nuance. Whenever I feel any intense emotional spike I grab my camera and document the elaborate play of muscles as they smooth and tense in turn. The camera captures movements we are unaware we are making. I often try to replicate and interpret expressions afterwards (eyebrows raised, squeezed together, cheeks raised, lips pressed together – anguish).
I recently read an article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “The Naked Face”. It described how Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen spent seven years categorizing every possible combination of the muscles in our face, then cataloging the three thousand different combinations that correspond to recognizable emotions. Some of these were expressions that can only be made involuntarily; they explored these by applying electrical currents to the necessary muscles. They did this in an attempt to teach themselves the rarest and most ephemeral of skills: the ability to read the human face. They endeavoured to become so acquainted with every variance of the face that they would be able to recognize and interpret the momentary flickers of tensing muscles too brief to be seen by the human eye.
While human emotion is communicated with the entire body, not merely the face, there is something endlessly fascinating about the face, with all it’s foibles. It plays a central role in our sense of self, an external manifestation of our brain. So much effort goes into trying to catalogue and understand what some do instinctively. As animals, it’s an instinctive survival tactic that we be able to read the faces of those around us. That we should instinctively sense those who are a danger to us. Yet, even when afforded a momentary flash of insight into someone’s character, we’re liable to dismiss it, as we’re unable to attribute it to something solid and quantifiable. If I could have any superpower it would be the ability to read people, and since this is the only superpower you can teach yourself, I’m determined to learn.
Malcolm Gladwell, Annals of Psychology, “The Naked Face,” The New Yorker, August 5, 2002, p. 38
The article in it’s entirety can be read here: http://www.gladwell.com/2002/2002_08_05_a_face.htm