Facial Expressions Electrified

Dick Conniff is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine (see his story in the June issue about the productive rivalry between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace) who writes the "Strange Behaviors" blog.

Yesterday he posted a video from an artist who... well, you just have to see it, and read Dick's explanation:

Check out this strange video illustrating the mechanistic nature of facial expressions. I spotted it on the VSL web site. Here’s some equally strange background, from a piece I wrote last year in Smithsonian Magazine:

In the 1840s, a Paris physician named Guillaume B.A. Duchenne was attempting to treat a patient’s facial neuralgia when he noticed that applying an electrical current caused the underlying muscle to contract sharply. The technique was too painful for experiments on living patients. So Duchenne, the son of a French coastal buccaneer, got permission to work with the freshly severed heads of executed criminals and revolutionaries. These specimens did not naturally display the sort of joyful smile Duchenne would later describe as “put in play by the sweet emotions of the soul.” But by applying live electrodes to different areas of the face, he found that he could make the muscles contract into recognizable facial expressions, including the smile.

Duchenne eventually moved on to living subjects, beginning with an elderly indigent whose neurological disorders apparently protected him from the pain of electrical experimentation. A photograph survives of the two men together, like the paired theatrical masks of tragedy and comedy: Duchenne sits on the left, looking melodramatically gloomy, with his high, domed forehead, deep-set eyes, down-turned lips, and jaw-line beard. He reaches across with a pair of electrical calipers, planting the tips on his patient’s face, midway between the corners of the mouth and the eyes. The effect on the zygomatic major muscles, the “muscle of joy,” in Duchenne’s phrase, causes his patient to grin idiotically.

And thus Duchenne demonstrated for the first time the mechanistic nature of human facial expressions. He argued that smiling, and other familiar expressions, constitute a universal language, “which neither fashions nor whims can change … the same in all people, in savages and civilized nations …”

P.S. The video comes from a Tokyo artist named Daito Manabe. Oh, and he says, yes, it hurts.

Dick's "What's Behind a Smile?" story isn't online, unfortunately (his decision, not ours) but he does have a book coming out from W.W. Norton in May that draws on several of his Smithsonian stories: Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Things With Animals. Delightful title, isn't it?

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