Are Facial Expressions Universal?

Languages have been shown to shape the brain. Is there a universal language that has shaped all of human culture? Paul Ekman’s theory of micro expressionism was almost an answer this question. He thought there were 6 different facial expressions that were universal in every human no matter what background the person was from. Over the past few years this thought has been contested.

image002Current beliefs show facials expressions are a construct of each individual and that ones culture and environment are participating factor in these micro expressions. Lisa Barrett, professor at Northwestern University, believes that when one looks at human expressions their mind is filling in unknown information. She believes that “emotion isn’t a simple reflex or a bodily state that’s hard-wired into our DNA” but that “what’s felt as sadness in one person might as easily be felt as weariness in another, or frustration in someone else” (Daniel Lende). Lisa Barrett took an ethnographic approach to figure out the answer to micro expressionism. She stayed in an isolated tribe in Namibia.  During her time she showed the tribe pictures representing the 6 micro expressions, with no context behind the questions. The tribe was unable to pinpoint all 6 expressions. If this tribe was unable to recognize the micro expressions found in each picture, facial expressions must not be universal. The idea of universal facial expressions is a psychological construct and cannot be considered an answer to the universal language.

Lende, Daniel. “Lisa Barrett: Facing Down Ekman’s Universal Emotions.” Neuroanthropology: Understanding the Uncultured Brain and Body. 30 Jun 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014. <;.


One thought on “Are Facial Expressions Universal?

  1. This is an interesting article, similar to our class discussion on whether or not body language was universal. I also believe that facial expressions are not universal, as they are often miss interpreted. Looks can often send the wrong message. But I question the part about emotions not being a reflex of a human. From what I had learned, babies are born with these reflexes to cry, laugh, and get angry. I think that emotions are a reflex, but reasons behind them are not. It’s not until we develop the ability to remember, that we start to connect our emotions to a reason(s) we are feeling them. Babies may not know why they are crying or what makes them sad, until they have memory of something that has mad them sad in the past. I don’t know how accurate that is, but that is what I had understood as emotions in terms of reflexes.

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