A to Z of the Human Condition: Y is for Yawning

8 October 2014

We invited you, as fellow experts on the #HumanCondition, to add your own idiosyncrasies to our current exhibition by submitting photographs on Instagram for a few of the themes explored in the gallery. As a thank you for your wonderful pictures, this series explores those themes and finds out the roles they play in making us human. In this final post of the series, Richard Firth-Godbehere explores how we use expressions to speak with our faces, illustrated by your photos.


One area where we historians find ourselves struggling is in the realm of ‘extra-linguistic communication’. Most of what we do involves reading texts with words in them and trying to first piece together what was meant by those words before translating that to modern language. History, in essence, is an act of translation; just translating from old words to new ones is far from easy. This is why going beyond words is even harder, especially when it comes to emotions.

One particularly interesting area of extra-linguistic communication is the face. Facial expressions are connected quite strongly to the emotions. Yawning, like in Wellcome Collection’s A to Z exhibition, can express boredom or tiredness. More bizarre is that it appears to be contagious, with one person’s yawn spreading through a group whether its members are tired or not. The variety of facial expressions and the way they communicate are rich pickings for those studying emotions.

Until fairly recently, psychologists believed that all humans have a set of six basic emotions expressed through the face. This idea was the result of research by psychologist Paul Ekman who asked people in various parts of the world to pick faces (from a range of photographs) they would expect to see when presented with a given scenario. A version of the photos of the six emotions he believed common to all cultures can be seen below, wonderfully posed by @LizTunbridge, one of the contributors to “Y is for Yawning”.

Paul Ekman wasn’t the first to try to use faces to understand emotions. Charles Le Brun, a man declared by the French King Louis XIV as ‘the greatest French artist of all time’, attempted to put together a catalogue of the passions expressed through people’s faces in classic art. This work, Méthode pour apprendre à dessiner les passions, wasn’t published until 1698, eight years after Le Brun died. Many of the faces are recognisable today. Here are two faces provided by amykatherinejensen that look suspiciously like Le Brun’s Horror and Fright.

 The face of a man expressing horror, Charles Le Brun.

The face of a man expressing horror, Charles Le Brun.

 The face of a man experiencing fear, Charles de Brun.

The face of a man experiencing fear, Charles de Brun.

Another man who tried to find emotions in faces was Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne, also known as Duchenne de Bologne. Duchenne, a brilliant physician, believed that human faces could produce sixty discrete emotions. In the days before ethical codes, he decided he would demonstrate this using electrical stimulation of the face muscles. He published his images in Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine in 1862. His work was influential, particularly on Charles Darwin, who reproduced many of Duchenne’s images in his 1872 work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

 A man having his face stimulated by electricity in an experiment on the electro-physiological expression of passions.

A man having his face stimulated by electricity in an experiment on the electro-physiological expression of passions.

Darwin’s descriptions and Duchenne’s photographs contained many similarities and differences to Ekman’s set of basic emotions, and to Le Brun, but all three retained the conviction that the face is the primary part of the body that communicates emotions. It is also worth noticing that all three sets contain some facial expressions that are certainly similar in what emotion they were supposed to be communicating, if not identical.

However, Ekman’s emotions might not be so universal after all. More recent experiments, giving people from various cultures a much greater say in which emotion faces they were allowed to choose, has suggested that Ekman is probably wrong. That doesn’t mean that faces don’t help us communicate our emotions, just that this type of language, like any other, may be taught to us as children. A great deal of our emotive communication comes from the face and it seems odd to think that members of one culture may not be able to read the anger, fear, of frustration of another. Nevertheless, this is increasingly appearing to be the case.

#humanexpression @wellcomecollection

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Now the world is getting smaller and this particular type of non-linguistic expression has started to become the basis of a world-language: the emoji or emoticon. In the entire internet-connected world, people are expressing their emotions not through words, but through cleverly formed characters that mimic the face.

To some degree, the use and prevalence of emojis can tell us something about Ekman’s idea of basic universal emotions, shared by all. We might expect that the most common emojis were anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise, but this isn’t the case. While there are emoji for anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise (try to pick them out above), these aren’t necessarily the most common. Nevertheless, images of faces are being used to convey extra-linguistic information about how people feel.

Using the full range of human facial expression at @wellcomecollection @ExploreWellcome #HumanExpression

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By representing the face, people are finding ways of expressing what was once all but impossible to express in text and beginning to provide a fascinating insight into the emotional lives of people all around the world. At the same time, as certain emojis and emoticons become increasingly common, it seems that a universal set of emotions is beginning to take shape. For me, and I suspect for Ekman and the ghosts of Le Brun, Duchenne and Darwin, this is far from something to yawn about.

Richard is a Wellcome Trust supported Doctoral Candidate in the Medical Humanities at the Centre for the History of Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London. Find out more on his blog.

See all the #HumanExpression photographs submitted by the public.