One of Charles Darwin’s less famous works, his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, released in 1872, kicked off the idea that emotions carry distinct facial expressions. We read these emotions naturally, from birth, all the time — it’s part of our innate wiring, and how to relate to and understand others. But we can learn to read them better with some practice.
One of the complicating factors in learning to read the emotions of other people is that we’ve been taught from a young age to conceal all emotions. We shouldn’t talk about them, display them, or feel them. Reading humans is a lot trickier than any other species because we can conceal, confuse, hide.
As a result of this, Richard Restak writes in Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential, “[T]he reading of other people’s emotions from their facial expressions is a subtle and arcane art that not everyone learns successfully.”
And this is odd considering that a lot of success in life comes from the ability to accurately read the emotions of other people and (simultaneously) control your own.
Restak provides a simple exercise to improve our ability to read the emotions of others based on the fact that “when a person pretends an emotion, he or she activates the same brain areas that would be activated in circumstances when the emotions are naturally and spontaneously expressed.”
Start by grabbing a trusted and interested friend. Sit on the floor about 3 feet apart, and have your friend close her eyes.
Then, while gazing into her face, ask her to think about the saddest moment in her life. She shouldn’t speak or otherwise respond by sighing, touching, or frowning. Study her face for the subtle changes that accompany her recall of the sad experience.
After a minute, ask her to clear her mind and think of nothing in particular. … Observe any facial changes that may occur as her thoughts shift from sad to neutral. At this point, ask your friend to open her eyes and look directly into your eyes. Ask her once again to think about her saddest experience, then of an emotionally neutral experience, and finally her happiest experience. Keep focused on her face, particularly her eyes as she shifts from one internal experience to the other. What changes do you observe?
Now shift roles.
Let your partner observe you first with your eyes closed as you think sad, indifferent, and happy thoughts. Then open your eyes and repeat the sequence. At this point in the exercise, both of you should spend one minute mentally organizing your impressions. Then share your observations and impressions.
Here is where things get interesting. What did you observe and how does it compare to what she tells you?
Does hearing the details of what she was thinking enrich your observations in any way? While she’s speaking of the sad experience, try to see once again those earlier changes in her eyes and face. Can you now detect something in her eyes or facial expression that escaped you when you were observing her a moment ago? Listen closely while she describes how you appeared to her when you were recalling the saddest and happiest moments in your life.
The most common reason the exercise fails is that as if by force of nature, we try to conceal our facial expressions.
Both of you must remain psychologically undefended, vulnerable. It’s also important that during the eyes-open part of the exercise you continue to maintain firm but gentle eye contact; not the eye contact of a salesperson or an interviewer, but that of a curious child who remains relaxed and open to a new experience. You’re not trying to “stare down” your partner, but intuitively enter into and participate in his or her inner experience.
This exercise is really intense. Pick your partner carefully. You’ll be dealing with subtle displays of emotion that we all have, however, unlike in social situations, you will get to test the accuracy of your emotional perceptiveness with the other person.
Still Curious? Check out Konstantin Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares to help the development of your emotional memory.