Make a Face and Let it Work

From Face Reading to Right Action in No Time At All.

When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression. (Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter, pp. 215–216).

These Edgar Allen Poe words introduce and summarize the publication of a recent study on emotional contagion via the face*. How did Poe know in the 1800’s that the face tells and can be mimicked in ways that can be really useful to us all? Now we know that face reading is 1) natural, automatic, unconscious (unless you are Poe and have made it a conscious strategic endeavor); and 2) that it takes only a few hundred milliseconds to read a face unless there is an impairment, e.g., nerve damage from a face job, or some with autism for whom eye contact may be a challenge. But for those who can, when we put someone else’s face on our own face, we also trigger our own experiences, memories, and associations (neural pathways) with that face and, in so doing, get good emotional information on what action to take. Sad face: Kind words, a hug? Wicked face: Run the other way? Happy face: Smile and the world smiles with you!

So…someone else’s emotions can be a facially transmitted contagious condition, for better and for worse. But it is neither the face nor the emotions to blame for the worse. Often enough, I find myself discussing with anyone who will listen, including but not limited to my clients**, that emotions are neither good nor bad. Behavior might be unbecoming, unskillful, or worse. But emotions are innocent. They didn’t do anything. You did…which could have been prevented if you had only paused long enough to breathe (belly out on the in-breath, belly in on the out-breath, 3 luxurious breaths, in through the nose, out through the nose) to kick it up to the higher brain and turn the whole thing around.

Disney’s 2015 movie, “Inside Out” powerfully, beautifully, poignantly persuades us of the proper place of emotions in all of our lives. So does Rumi, in his poem “The Guest House,” when he tells us to welcome and be grateful for our emotions for they are our guides. And finally, for the moment, there is the famous (Psychology 101) Phineas Gage who, after taking a spike in the head that impaired his emotion/cognition connection, was still very smart but social judgment and decision-making impaired.

Of course, to get the emotional goods from a face – and then the behavior that leads to a happier, healthier, productive life to follow – first we have to actually read the face instead of the text on our phone. This means we have to put down the phone, pick up our head, and make old fashioned, face-to-face human contact. Try this. You can do it. Yes you can. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.

For help with this or something else, call or write at:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

Phone:  202.617.0821

*Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Wood et al.: “Fashioning the Face: Sensorimotor Simulation Contributes to Facial Expression Recognition”

**Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2016. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.

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