Feeling disgustedly surprised? Scientists identify 21 facial expressions

Researchers found that the previously recognised six emotional states were just the tip of the iceberg

If you ever have trouble reading someone’s mood it could be because you haven’t learned how to interpret the full range of human emotion.

From happy to disgustedly surprised, scientists have identified 21 different facial expressions. The research, which was carried out using new computer software, more than triples the long-accepted figure of six emotional states.

Dr Aleix Martinez, from Ohio State University in the US, said: “We've gone beyond facial expressions for simple emotions like 'happy' or 'sad.' We found a strong consistency in how people move their facial muscles to express 21 categories of emotions.

”That is simply stunning. That tells us that these 21 emotions are expressed in the same way by nearly everyone, at least in our culture."

In future, the computer model could aid the diagnosis and treatment of mental conditions such as autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said the researchers.

 

Since ancient times, leading thinkers have tried to understand how and why our faces betray our feelings. Scientists such as Aristotle, and Darwin have long promoted the idea that people’s faces express only a handful of basic emotions - happy, sad, fearful, angry, surprised and disgusted.

Today, cognitive scientists try to link facial expressions to emotions in order to track the genetic and chemical pathways that govern emotion in the brain.

But restricting emotions to just six categories is like painting only using primary colours, said Dr Martinez. The new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has tripled the colour palette available to researchers.

"In cognitive science, we have this basic assumption that the brain is a computer," Dr Martinez added.

"So we want to find the algorithm implemented in our brain that allows us to recognise emotion in facial expressions.

“In the past, when we were trying to decode that algorithm using only those six basic emotion categories, we were having tremendous difficulty. Hopefully with the addition of more categories, we'll now have a better way of decoding and analysing the algorithm in the brain.”

The researchers photographed 230 mostly student volunteers – 100 male, 130 female – pulling faces in response to verbal cues designed to trigger different emotional states.

The words “you just got some great unexpected news”, for instance, produced an expression that was “happily surprised”, while “you smell a bad odour” prompted a “disgusted” face.

A search was then made for similarities or differences between the 5,000 resulting images and an expression database widely used in body language analysis called the Facial Action Coding System (Facs).

This yielded 21 emotions which included subtle combinations of the “basic six”.

From left to right: happy, disgusted and happily disgusted From left to right: happy, disgusted and happily disgusted

Tagging prominent landmarks for facial muscles, such as the corners of the mouth or the outer edge of the eyebrow, enabled the scientists to match emotions to movement.

Putting on a “happy” face was done the same way by almost everyone, with 99 per cent of study participants drawing up the cheeks and smiling. “Surprise” involved widening the eyes and opening the mouth 92 per cent of the time.

“Happily surprised” was marked by wide-open eyes, raised cheeks, and a mouth that was both open and stretched into a smile.

Another hybrid emotion, “happily disgusted”, created an expression that combined the scrunched up eyes and nose of “disgusted” with the smile of “happy”.

It was the emotion felt when something “gross” happens that is also incredibly funny, Dr Martinez explained.

He described how the research might help people with PTSD who were likely to be unusually attuned to anger and fear.

“Can we speculate that they will be tuned to all the compound emotions that involve anger or fear, and perhaps be super-tuned to something like 'angrily fearful'?” said Dr Martinez.

“What are the pathways, the chemicals in the brain that activate those emotions?

"We can make more hypotheses now, and test them. Then eventually we can begin to understand these disorders much better, and develop therapies or medicine to alleviate them."

Here are the 21 facial expressions:

Happy

Sad

Fearful

Angry

Surprised

Disgusted

Happily Surprised

Happily Disgusted

Sadly Fearful

Sadly Angry

Sadly Surprised

Sadly Disgusted

Fearfully Angry

Fearfully Surprised

Fearfully Disgusted

Angrily Surprised

Angrily Disgusted

Disgustedly Surprised

Appalled

Hatred

Awed

Additional reporting by PA

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
Floyd Mayweather will relinquish his five world titles after beating Manny Pacquiao
boxing
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
News
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living