Emotion & Expression Part 1

My brother is nonverbal, autistic and very low functioning. I don’t know if I will ever be able to communicate with him on any level but the most basic, i.e., Food=Good, No Food=Not Good.

Thought Experiment

If it is true that every person has a mental state of some kind, and that mental states are reflected in a physical expressions of some kind, could we reverse the process and infer a mental state from a person’s expression?

In this part, I survey the basis for what would seem to be an obvious connection between expression and emotion, or mental state. In part 2, I explore the reversal of this process: inferring as state of mind from an expression.

From Whence do Expressions Come?

I am reading The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin.[1] He gathered information from many sources about a wide range of facial and postural expressions in man and animals. Darwin proposed that expressions have a pattern of development, beginning as voluntary actions, becoming habitual and finally becoming hereditary. He stated, “That the chief expressive actions, exhibited by man and by the lower animals, are now innate or inherited – that is, have not been learnt by the individual, – is admitted by every one.”[2]

Darwin suggested three principles[3] of expression:

1)      The principle of serviceable associated Habits: complex interactions of nerve and muscle, resulting in an expression, indicate a man or animal’s state of mind.

2)      The principle of Antithesis: an opposite state of mind results in an “involuntary tendency to the performance of movements of a directly opposite nature…”

3)      The principle of actions due to the constitution of the Nervous System, independently from the first of the Will, and independently to a certain extent of Habit. Darwin restates the third principle as the interactions of nerve and muscle result from “the direct action of the nervous system” [emphasis added].

Darwin’s observations and those of his associates, together with their rudimentary experiments led to the conclusions, that expressions arise first from voluntary action to environmental stimulus, become habitual, and finally become innate and inheritable. Furthermore, he concluded that expressions result from action of the nervous system and that they reflect a state of mind.

From Whence do Emotions Come?

As mentioned in a previous post, the limbic system[4], present in all mammals, consisting of structures along the midline of the brain has been identified as being responsible for emotions. James Papez discovered in 1937 that these midline structures function in the same manner as other somatosensory systems, i.e., the sensory nerve fibers have a relay station in the thalamus. Dr. Paul MacLean suggested that the hippocampus, the amygdala and septum be included in Papez’s circuit.[5] The limbic system has rich neuronal connections with other parts of the brain. In addition, the limbic system has access to the chemical control system through the hypothalamus (i.e., hormone levels and other systems, which act to heighten or dull senses globally). “The Circuit of Papez also includes other cerebral regions with locomotor, mnemic[6] and associative functions.”[7]

How does Emotion Connect with Expression?

There are many structures which have input to the ‘emotional circuit’; too many to delve into in this forum. Suffice it to say, there is evidence of connection of the ‘emotional circuit’ with the ‘nerve-force’ that Darwin suggests is the origin of expression. For instance, Dr. Pierre Gloor eminent physician and epilepsy researcher stated that “the limbic system… embodies mechanisms that relate “external” reality perceived by the exteroceptive senses to “internal” reality embedded in memory and affect[8].”[9] Other connections have been noted. Morecraft and Van Hoesen “… suggest that the cingulate motor cortex form a strategic cortical entry point for limbic influence on the voluntary motor system.”[10]

We Have all the Ingredients

I have not done an exhaustive survey of the literature regarding the relationship between emotions and expression. This is a topic that I would like to revisit in future posts. However, it is clear that a mechanism for translating an inner emotion, or state of mind to the rest of the body exists.

[1] Darwin, C The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. U. of Chicago Press (1965)

[2] Ibid pg 350

[3] Ibid pg28-29

[4] My favorite part of the brain!

[6] Mnemic definition: the retentive basis or basic principle in a mind or organism accounting for memory. dictionary.reference.com/browse/mnemic

[7] Roxo, M.R. et. al The Limbic System Conception and Its Historical Evolution Scientific World Journal. 2011; 11: 2428–2441.

[8] Affect (appearance) is an important notion that I would like to discuss in a future post.

[9] Gloor, P. The Temporal Lobe and Limbic System. Oxford University Press (1997)

[10] MorecraftR. J., Van Hoesen, G. W. (1998). Convergence of limbic input to the cingulate motor cortex in the rhesus monkey. Brain Res Bull 45: 209–32

4 thoughts on “Emotion & Expression Part 1

  1. You have a vastly interesting blog, and I love the title! My brother is VERY high-functioning, developmentally disabled, which is why this caught my eye. I, however, believe that psychology and social functions play a very large part in both neurological function, and the development of gestures, not just brain structure and chemical composition. For example, “wild children” as in the case of Andre Tolstyk, and other such feral children, and the developmentally disabled, their methods of gesturing and nonverbal communication will vary vastly from what a child raised without these impediments would display. I am of the opinion that the more basic gestures and motions are innate, such as those for defense and etc., and anything beyond is observed and learned.

    • Great comment, Loudmouseradio. May I call you Loudmouse?

      I agree that observations of others in the environment is a big factor in the development of expressions and gestures. Darwin also is of the opinion that certain expressions are universally recognized, and probably innate. There is a charming anecdote in his book in which he describes his infant child “answering [his smile] by another, at much too early an age to have learnt anything by experience.” He tried evoking other expressions: “When this child was about four months old, I made in his presence many odd noises and strange grimaces, and tried to look savage; but the noises, if not too loud, as well as the grimaces, were all taken as good jokes; and I attributed this at the time to their being preceded or accompanied by smiles.” (pg 358 The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals). It is fun to think of Darwin making fierce faces at his child, only to be laughed at.

  2. When my sister gets into what I call her “autistic states,” she changes expressions in seconds, from smiling to anger to fear, to fright, to giddiness. She frowns and grimaces, eyebrows and forehead wrinkle and distort. Her eyes, which never work together, dart around helter-skelter. She won’t look at you with either eye, even if you hold her chin and try to force her to look at you. And all the while she talks – jabbers – some things understandable, some not. If they are understandable, they are usually memories of early childhood, a time when she didn’t talk much at all. Sometimes she will put her fingers deep into her eye sockets. If you try to get her to do something else when she is in one of these states, she resists and will start biting her wrist. Most of all, she won’t communicate with you. She won’t look at you, answer your questions. It’s as if you are not even there.
    I’ve tried to find a pattern with these episodes, which are quite frequent, but I can’t seem to find a trigger, what sets her off, time of day, day of week, food, lack of sleep? Is she in pain? There is no pattern. I wish I knew the answer, I wish I could help her, but I can’t seem to find a way. Sometimes they last a few minutes or a few hours, and sometimes they last for days.
    But when she is “here,” her expressions are more like “normal” people’s expressions. She smiles when she’s happy, when you give her a Reese’s Pieces. Her face shows anger or nervousness when she can’t find a special piece of plastic bag, or you serve her a food she doesn’t want.

    • Sounds very stressful, Anne, and frustrating. Emotions and expression are difficult to enough to decipher under normal conditions. Possibly there are internal triggers. Maybe some kind of seizure activity. Terribly frustrating situation. I hope you have someone who can help.

      Best wishes,


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