Emotion & Expression Part 2

Review of Part 1:

Empirical Evidence Relating Emotion and Expression

I briefly reviewed Charles Darwin’s book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. In this fascinating account, Darwin established that expressions are related to mental states and that the nervous system acts on the body in response to environmental stimuli. Through his observations, he claimed that expressions begin as voluntary actions, become habitual and become inheritable traits.

Limbic System is Responsible for Emotions

The limbic system is set of structures along the midline of the brain that act together with the hippocampus and amygdala. James Papez was the first to suggest that this system is responsible for emotions, structured in a similar way to neural systems responsible for touch and pain.

Limbic System is Connected to the Rest of the Body

There are indeed connections between limbic system structures and the nervous system governing muscles, as well as connections with the hypothalamus, which monitors the body’s hormonal balance.

Conclusion, Part 1:

The human body has the ways and means of translating an internal mental state into an outwardly observable expression.

Question for Part 2:

Is it possible to communicate with my brother, who is nonverbal, autistic and very low functioning, by inferring his state of mind from his physical expressions (facial, postural and gestural)?


Does everyone have a mental state?

As we begin, it is fair to ask if indeed everybody has a mental state. My assumption is: if a person is conscious[1], he or she has a mental state. In searching for a list of possible mental states, I came across the definition of Mental Status Examination (MSE). Psychiatrists use the MSE to assess an individual’s cognitive ability, mood, speech and thought patterns. This test cannot be given to a comatose or unconscious patient, or someone unable to speak.[2] I understand this to mean that mental states may exist in nonverbal or comatose people but they are not testable with the MSE. For example, Jean-Dominique Bauby,[3] author of the Diving Bell and the Butterfly, could not speak after a massive stroke, and only had the use of one eye. Yet he dictated the entire book through a process involving the blinking of that eye. That this person had mental states is evidenced by the thoughts in his book.

Mental States Reflected in Expression – More Evidence

Drs. Paul Ekman and Silvan Tomkins expanded Darwin’s study of emotions and expressions “proving that facial expressions of emotion are not culturally determined, but biological in origin and universal across human cultures.” [4] Profilers who work with the police are trained to detect ‘microexpressions’, which are involuntary, twitch-like expressions that betray the inner state of the person whom they are questioning. I would like to read Dr. Ekman’s book, Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions. I don’t think it will help me in solving my problem, but I am interested in his proof that facial expressions are not culturally determined.

We hardly need a profiler to tell when a child fakes a smile for a camera. In fact, they are told to ‘say cheese’. The same muscles used for smiling are pressed into action when they say the word ‘cheese’.

Good actors are more convincing. Some use method acting by which the actor creates the mental state of the character, hoping that the expressions, posture, and gestures convince the audience of the truthfulness of the performance.

I must mention Tourette Syndrome. Gestures resulting from a Tourettic process indicate an internal biological process, but it is involuntary; not necessarily indicative of an emotional state.

Cultural Influence on Expressions?

Darwin mentions the universality of some expressions such as shoulder shrugging, but acknowledges that there are variants in different cultures: “Englishmen are much less demonstrative than the men of most other European nations, and they shrug their shoulders far less frequently and energetically than Frenchmen or Italians do.”[5] Familiarization of a traveler with local customs is always a good idea prior to a trip to a different culture. For instance it might be helpful to know the meanings of different types of bowing before traveling to Japan. One doesn’t want to inadvertently offend anyone by a gesture that is misinterpreted.

When we meet a new person we learn his or her idiosyncrasies. Does a nervous laugh indicate lying? Why can’t he or she look me in the eye? Is the person aloof or just shy? In getting to know a person, one must correlate a particular expression with biological state and learn its significance. We get to know the culture of that person.

Back to My Brother

By now, we can certainly be sure that an expression indicates a mental state. We know that it is possible for a nonverbal person to have a mental state.

I can learn Michael’s expressions and correlate them appropriately. Is it possible, knowing his mental state, to be able to exchange information with him? I think the answer to this is clearly no. Even if I had a filter that enabled me to feel exactly what he felt: an over sensitivity to touch here; a love for a certain color there; his (probably) profound hunger; I still would not be able to determine what it is like for him when he shifts from one state and another. Ultimately, one cannot know what it is like to be another person.

There is something missing in my brother. It probably is related to mind blindness, as discussed by Simon Baron-Cohen[6], where the individual only has a sense of self (hence the term autism). Other people in Mike’s world are probably perceived as unpredictable impediments to what he wants. His expressions probably reflect the emotional states concerned with needs fulfilled or unfulfilled.

All this discussion and it is back to Food=Good, No Food=Not Good.

It takes two to Tango.

[1] Consciousness is another rich topic that I would like to discuss in a later post.

[5] Darwin, C. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. U. of Chicago Press 1965 pg 263

[6] Baron-Cohen, S. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. MIT Press 1997

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