Emotions Revealed | Paul Ekman

Summary of: Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life
By: Paul Ekman


Our emotional displays have proven to be incredibly useful tools throughout human evolution, enabling our ancestors to survive and adapt to the world around them. ‘Emotions Revealed’ by Paul Ekman takes us on a journey through the science behind emotions, demonstrating the enduring and powerful sway they hold on our lives today. From demonstrating the lasting impact of childhood trauma on our emotional reactions to using photography to decipher joy, sadness, and anger – this book will help readers to better understand and appreciate the complexity of human emotions and expressions.

Emotions: Evolved Survival Tools

Surprisingly, uncontrollable emotional reactions (such as crying) are actually essential evolutionary instruments, deep-rooted and passed down from our ancestors. In a 1993 study, Swedish psychologist Arne Ohman demonstrated how even today, humans instinctively exhibit a heightened sensitivity to ancient threats such as spiders and snakes. Through a series of experiments, he showed that individuals conditioned with electric shocks reacted more fearfully to images of spiders than guns or flowers. This evidence strongly reflects the concept that our emotions, particularly those related to fear, are valuable remnants of the experiences—and survival instincts—of our ancestors. Embrace your emotions as essential tools for navigating the world, rather than feeling embarrassed or hindered by them.

Unraveling Irrational Emotions

Irrational emotions, often rooted in childhood experiences or ancestral heritage, can have a significant impact on daily life, causing powerful reactions to seemingly minor events. Understanding the origin of these emotions helps to navigate and manage them effectively.

Our emotions can sometimes contradict logic in baffling ways. For instance, being afraid of falling despite being on a rooftop with high railings and a safety net. Such irrational emotions can be particularly potent when stemming from childhood traumas.

Take the case of Tim, a client of the author. As a child, Tim’s father would tease him in ways that might appear harmless to some, but were deeply hurtful to Tim. When learning to ride a bike, his father would laugh and share stories when Tim fell, and this triggered long-lasting sensitivity to teasing. As a result, even playful jesting in adulthood can provoke an irrational outburst of anger from Tim.

Going beyond personal traumas, our emotional reactions can be traced back to our ancestors, making them even more volatile. Primal reactions surface unexpectedly, as demonstrated by a dean at the author’s university. While remaining calm when dealing with rejected hard-worked proposals, he experiences extreme road rage when stuck in traffic. This reaction, surprisingly, has its roots in our ancestors.

Although cars did not exist for our ancestors, movement and territorial freedom were crucial to their survival. Being restrained by an opponent was distressing and potentially fatal. Consequently, a modern-day traffic jam can activate these ancient emotional patterns, leading to irrational outbursts.

Recognizing the relationship between our present emotional reactions and their origins in personal and ancestral experiences is crucial for navigating and managing these seemingly illogical feelings in our daily lives. By gaining insight into the source of our emotional triggers, we’re better equipped to face them and take control over irrational responses.

Decoding Emotional Expressions

Recognizing emotions in others is crucial for effective communication, and the human face offers many reliable signs. Observing the position of the eyebrows, the widening of the lips, and the contraction of the cheeks helps decipher the subtle distinctions between sadness and happiness. By paying attention to these facial cues, you can improve your emotional intelligence and better understand the people you interact with.

Imagine observing a photograph of Bettye Shirley, a bereaved mother who lost her son to a pedophile ring in 1971. Her face expresses unmistakable sadness, but what specific cues reveal this emotion? The key lies in the intricate facial muscles and their various movements.

One reliable sign of sadness is the raising of the inner eyebrow points, just above the nose. As this is an involuntary reaction, it may still be visible even if someone attempts to conceal their sorrow. A vertical crease between the raised inner eyebrows further amplifies this expression of profound grief.

In Bettye’s photograph, her sadness is evident on her forehead through the upturned eyebrows and the pronounced vertical crease. Moving down to her lips, they’re seen horizontally widened as part of a sad grimace. This widening often reaches a point where the mouth opens, leading to crying and wailing – an emotional release. However, in contemporary times, people are more likely to suppress these urges.

Sadness also manifests itself in contracted cheeks, where they become slightly raised and more prominent on the face. This contraction can lift the corners of the lips into a smile-like appearance. Recognizing a “sad smile” involves differentiating it from a genuine smile by observing the cheeks. If the lips are being pulled up by contracted cheeks, the person is expressing sadness, not happiness.

By learning to identify these distinct facial cues, you can enhance your emotional intelligence and better comprehend the emotions of others, leading to more empathetic and fruitful interactions.

Decoding Angry Body Language

When analyzing the expressions of anger, it’s essential to focus on specific body language features. Maxine Kenny, a mother whose daughter was tragically taken from her, displayed a clear portrait of anger through her furrowed eyebrows, glaring eyes, clenched jaw, and most notably, her thin, drawn-back lips. Thinning of the lips is a consistent and reliable indicator of anger that cannot be controlled voluntarily, revealing emotions that may be hidden. However, not everyone with narrow lips is angry—it’s crucial to recognize that anger results in lips becoming thinner than their usual state.

It’s important to consider cultural differences when interpreting signs of anger. For instance, in Papua New Guinea, the indigenous people signify uncontrolled anger by closing their mouths and tightening their lips, contrary to the norm in the Western world where emotions are unleashed via open mouths and shouting. When an angry Papua New Guinean reveals an open mouth, it implies a controlled form of anger and a willingness to communicate, as opposed to seeking a physical confrontation. This is a stark contrast to Western behavior, where controlled anger is often expressed by keeping the mouth closed and suppressing verbal insults. Understanding these cultural nuances is vital when detecting and interpreting the emotions that orate through body language.

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