The Theory of Mind Reading

Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking- Malcolm Gladwell
Much of our understanding of mind reading comes from two remarkable scientists, a teacher and his pupil: Silvan Tomkins and Paul Ekman. Tomkins was the teacher. He was born in Philadelphia at the turn of the last century, the son of a dentist from Russia. He was short and thick around the middle, with a wild mane of white hair and huge black plastic-rimmed glasses. He taught psychology at Princeton and Rutgers and was the author of Affect, Imagery, Consciousness, a four-volume work so dense that its readers were evenly divided between those who understood it and thought it was brilliant and those who did not understand it and thought it was brilliant. He was a legendary talker. At the end of a cocktail party, a crowd of people would sit rapt at Tomkins’s feet. Someone would say, “One more question!” and everyone would stay for another hour and a half as Tomkins held forth on, say, comic books, a television sitcom, the biology of emotion, his problem with Kant, and his enthusiasm for the latest fad diets—all enfolded into one extended riff.
During the Depression, in the midst of his doctoral studies at Harvard, he worked as a handicapper for a horse-racing syndicate and was so successful that he lived lavishly on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. At the track, where he sat in the stands for hours staring at the horses through binoculars, he was known as “the professor.” “He had a system for predicting how a horse would do, based on what horse was on either side of him, based on their emotional relationship,” Ekman remembers. If a male horse, for instance, had lost to a mare in his first or second year, he would be ruined if he went to the gate with a mare next to him in the lineup. (Or something like that—no one really knew for certain.)
Tomkins believed that faces—even the faces of horses—held valuable clues to inner emotions and motivations. He could walk into a post office, it was said, go over to the Wanted posters, and, just by looking at the mug shots, say what crimes the various fugitives had committed. “He would watch the show To Tell the Truth, and without fail he could always pick out the people who were lying,” his son Mark recalls. “He actually wrote the producer at one point to say it was too easy, and the man invited him to come to New York, go backstage, and show his stuff.” Virginia Demos, who teaches psychology at Harvard, recalls having long conversations with Tomkins during the 1988 Democratic National Convention. “We would sit and talk on the phone, and he would turn the sound down while, say, Jesse Jackson was talking to Michael Dukakis. And he would read the faces and give his predictions on what would happen. It was profound.”
Paul Ekman first encountered Tomkins in the early 1960s. Ekman was then a young psychologist just out of graduate school, and he was interested in studying faces. Was there a common set of rules, he wondered, that governed the facial expressions that human beings made? Silvan Tomkins said that there was. But most psychologists said that there wasn’t. The conventional wisdom at the time held that expressions were culturally determined—that is, we simply used our faces according to a set of learned social conventions. Ekman didn’t know which view was right, so, to help him decide, he traveled to Japan, Brazil, and Argentina—and even to remote tribes in the jungles of the Far East—carrying photographs of men and women making a variety of distinctive faces. To his amazement, everywhere he went, people agreed on what those expressions meant. Tomkins, he realized, was right.
Not long afterward, Tomkins visited Ekman at his laboratory in San Francisco. Ekman had tracked down a hundred thousand feet of film that had been shot by the virologist Carleton Gajdusek in the remote jungles of Papua New Guinea. Some of the footage was of a tribe called the South Fore, who were a peaceful and friendly people. The rest was of the Kukukuku, a hostile and murderous tribe with a homosexual ritual in which preadolescent boys were required to serve as courtesans for the male elders of the tribe. For six months, Ekman and his collaborator, Wallace Friesen, had been sorting through the footage, cutting extraneous scenes, focusing just on close-ups of the faces of the tribesmen in order to compare the facial expressions of the two groups.
As Ekman set up the projector, Tomkins waited in the back. He had been told nothing about the tribes involved; all identifying context had been edited out. Tomkins looked on intently, peering through his glasses. At the end of the film, he approached the screen and pointed to the faces of the South Fore. “These are a sweet, gentle people, very indulgent, very peaceful,” he said. Then he pointed to the faces of the Kukukuku. “This other group is violent, and there is lots of evidence to suggest homosexuality.” Even today, a third of a century later, Ekman cannot get over what Tomkins did. “My God! I vividly remember saying, ‘Silvan, how on earth are you doing that?’” Ekman recalls. “And he went up to the screen, and, while we played the film backward in slow motion, he pointed out the particular bulges and wrinkles in the faces that he was using to make his judgment. That’s when I realized, ‘I’ve got to unpack the face.’ It was a gold mine of information that everyone had ignored. This guy could see it, and if he could see it, maybe everyone else could, too.”
Ekman and Friesen decided, then and there, to create a taxonomy of facial expressions. They combed through medical textbooks that outlined the facial muscles, and they identified every distinct muscular movement that the face could make. There were forty-three such movements. Ekman and Friesen called them action units. Then they sat across from each other, for days on end, and began manipulating each action unit in turn, first locating the muscle in their minds and then concentrating on isolating it, watching each other closely as they did, checking their movements in a mirror, making notes on how the wrinkle patterns on their faces would change with each muscle movement, and videotaping the movement for their records. On the few occasions when they couldn’t make a particular movement, they went next door to the UCSF anatomy department, where a surgeon they knew would stick them with a needle and electrically stimulate the recalcitrant muscle. “That wasn’t pleasant at all,” Ekman recalls.
When each of those action units had been mastered, Ekman and Friesen began working action units in combination, layering one movement on top of another. The entire process took seven years. “There are three hundred combinations of two muscles,” Ekman says. “If you add in a third, you get over four thousand. We took it up to five muscles, which is over ten thousand visible facial configurations.” Most of those ten thousand facial expressions don’t mean anything, of course. They are the kind of nonsense faces that children make. But, by working through each action-unit combination, Ekman and Friesen identified about three thousand that did seem to mean something, until they had catalogued the essential repertoire of human facial displays of emotion.
Paul Ekman is now in his sixties. He is clean-shaven, with closely set eyes and thick, prominent eyebrows, and although he is of medium build, he seems much larger: there is something stubborn and substantial in his demeanor. He grew up in Newark, New Jersey, the son of a pediatrician, and entered the University of Chicago at fifteen. He speaks deliberately. Before he laughs, he pauses slightly, as if waiting for permission. He is the sort who makes lists and numbers his arguments. His academic writing has an orderly logic to it; by the end of an Ekman essay, each stray objection and problem has been gathered up and catalogued. Since the mid-1960s, he has been working out of a ramshackle Victorian townhouse at the University of California at San Francisco, where he holds a professorship. When I met Ekman, he sat in his office and began running through the action-unit configurations he had learned so long ago. He leaned forward slightly, placing his hands on his knees. On the wall behind him were photographs of his two heroes, Tomkins and Charles Darwin. “Everybody can do action unit four,” he began. He lowered his brow, using his depressor glabellae, depressor supercilii, and corrugator. “Almost everyone can do A.U. nine.” He wrinkled his nose, using his levator labii superioris alaeque nasi. “Everybody can do five.” He contracted his levator palpebrae superioris, raising his upper eyelid.
I was trying to follow along with him, and he looked up at me. “You’ve got a very good five,” he said generously. “The more deeply set your eyes are, the harder it is to see the five. Then there’s seven.” He squinted. “Twelve.” He flashed a smile, activating the zygomatic major. The inner parts of his eyebrows shot up. “That’s A.U. one—distress, anguish.” Then he used his frontalis, pars lateralis, to raise the outer half of his eyebrows. “That’s A.U. two. It’s also very hard, but it’s worthless. It’s not part of anything except Kabuki theater. Twenty-three is one of my favorites. It’s the narrowing of the red margin of the lips. Very reliable anger sign. It’s very hard to do voluntarily.” He narrowed his lips. “Moving one ear at a time is still one of the hardest things to do. I have to really concentrate. It takes everything I’ve got.” He laughed. “This is something my daughter always wanted me to do for her friends. Here we go.” He wiggled his left ear, then his right ear. Ekman does not appear to have a particularly expressive face. He has the demeanor of a psychoanalyst, watchful and impassive, and his ability to transform his face so easily and quickly was astonishing. “There is one I can’t do,” he went on. “It’s A.U. thirty-nine. Fortunately, one of my postdocs can do it. A.U. thirty-eight is dilating the nostrils. Thirty-nine is the opposite. It’s the muscle that pulls them down.” He shook his head and looked at me again. “Ooh! You’ve got a fantastic thirty-nine. That’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s genetic. There should be other members of your family who have this heretofore unknown talent. You’ve got it, you’ve got it.” He laughed again. “You’re in a position to flash it at people. See, you should try that in a singles bar!”
“Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”
Ekman then began to layer one action unit on top of another, in order to compose the more complicated facial expressions that we generally recognize as emotions. Happiness, for instance, is essentially A.U. six and twelve—contracting the muscles that raise the cheek (orbicularis oculi, pars orbitalis) in combination with the zygomatic major, which pulls up the corners of the lips. Fear is A.U. one, two, and four, or, more fully, one, two, four, five, and twenty, with or without action units twenty-five, twenty-six, or twenty-seven. That is: the inner brow raiser (frontalis, pars medialis) plus the outer brow raiser (frontalis, pars lateralis) plus the brow-lowering depressor supercilii plus the levator palpebrae superioris (which raises the upper lid) plus the risorius (which stretches the lips) plus the parting of the lips (depressor labii) plus the masseter (which drops the jaw). Disgust? That’s mostly A.U. nine, the wrinkling of the nose (levator labii superioris alaeque nasi), but it can sometimes be ten, and in either case it may be combined with A.U. fifteen or sixteen or seventeen.
Ekman and Friesen ultimately assembled all these combinations—and the rules for reading and interpreting them—into the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS, and wrote them up in a five-hundred-page document. It is a strangely riveting work, full of such details as the possible movements of the lips (elongate, de-elongate, narrow, widen, flatten, protrude, tighten, and stretch); the four different changes of the skin between the eyes and the cheeks (bulges, bags, pouches, and lines); and the critical distinctions between infraorbital furrows and the nasolabial furrow. John Gottman, whose research on marriage I wrote about in chapter 1, has collaborated with Ekman for years and uses the principles of FACS in analyzing the emotional states of couples. Other researchers have employed Ekman’s system to study everything from schizophrenia to heart disease; it has even been put to use by computer animators at Pixar (Toy Story) and DreamWorks (Shrek). FACS takes weeks to master in its entirety, and only five hundred people around the world have been certified to use it in research. But those who have mastered it gain an extraordinary level of insight into the messages we send each other when we look into one another’s eyes.
Ekman recalled the first time he saw Bill Clinton, during the 1992 Democratic primaries. “I was watching his facial expressions, and I said to my wife, ‘This is Peck’s Bad Boy,’” Ekman said. “This is a guy who wants to be caught with his hand in the cookie jar and have us love him for it anyway. There was this expression that’s one of his favorites. It’s that hand-in-the-cookie-jar, love-me-Mommy-because-I’m-a-rascal look. It’s A.U. twelve, fifteen, seventeen, and twenty-four, with an eye roll.” Ekman paused, then reconstructed that particular sequence of expressions on his face. He contracted his zygomatic major, A.U. twelve, in a classic smile, then tugged the corners of his lips down with his triangularis, A.U. fifteen. He flexed the mentalis, A.U. seventeen, which raises the chin, slightly pressed his lips together in A.U. twenty-four, and finally rolled his eyes—and it was as if Slick Willie himself were suddenly in the room.
“I knew someone who was on Clinton’s communications staff. So I contacted him. I said, ‘Look, Clinton’s got this way of rolling his eyes along with a certain expression, and what it conveys is “I’m a bad boy.” I don’t think it’s a good thing. I could teach him how not to do that in two to three hours.’ And he said, ‘Well, we can’t take the risk that he’s known to be seeing an expert on lying.’” Ekman’s voice trailed off. It was clear that he rather liked Clinton and that he wanted Clinton’s expression to have been no more than a meaningless facial tic. Ekman shrugged. “Unfortunately, I guess, he needed to get caught—and he got caught.”

About Abdul Rahman Alieh

I use this space to share interesting videos and snippets from articles and books I come across. I hope you find this blog interesting. Can't wait to read your comments! Abdul Rahman

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