The Frontal Cortex


Paul Ekman, the eminent scientist behind micro facial expressions, dissects the unconscious tics of deceit used by A-Rod:

Ms. Couric asked Mr. Rodriguez if he had ever been tempted to use illegal drugs. He answered with a simple “No” accompanied by what might be a microfear expression, according to Dr. Ekman – a horizontal stretching of the lips that is often an effort to conceal fearfulness.

“The fear of being disbelieved is the same as fear of being caught,” Dr. Ekman said. “He is afraid that we’re not going to believe it.”

Mr. Rodriguez’s lips stretch in a similar way when he talks of his disappointment with the report.

What I find most interesting about these invisibly quick facial expressions is that people can be trained to perceive them. (Ekman has worked with the C.I.A. and F.B.I., and currently sells a microexpression training tool.) One of the things I learned while hanging out with professional poker players for my book is that the pros rarely have obvious tells or tics. They’ve learned how to hide and obscure their underlying emotions. (In fact, an obvious display of nervousness is usually interpreted as a form of play acting, which suggests that the player actually has a good hand.) And yet, pro poker players still believe that, when it comes to the interpretation of someone else’s anxieties, they can make reasonably accurate guesses, even if they can’t explain where these guesses come from. In other words, the players believe that their unconscious brain is constantly picking up the microexpressions of deceit, which allows them to act upon relevant information outside of conscious awareness. When players talk about developing a “feel” for the card game, what they’re often referring to is this ability to read the mind of someone else, even when that person is doing everything possible to hide their mind. We know more than we know, and part of what we know is that even the best liars have subtle tells.


  1. #1 zombie_bot
    February 17, 2009

    one problem, micro-expressions can be intentionally or unintentionally faked, like other forms of body language.

    i don’t see how this is different from other forms of body language, there’s either no reliable evidence backing it up or it’s blatantly obvious.

    maybe it’s reliable enough for the fbi or whoever, to give them something to go on, but as evidence, no way.

    plus i’ve seen some pretty bad card players, who focus on body language.

  2. #2 Maria Rivera
    February 18, 2009

    Is it fair to say that being aware of playacting or plotting is an essential part of life preferably without crossing the threshold to paranoia?
    It must be a way to recognize common interests or give expression to emotions and it has advantages over words. I suppose we exchange recorded signals and respond to expressions that impress us at first sight. Puzzling 😉

    Thank you for signing my book and more thanks for writing it.

  3. #3 Anibal
    February 18, 2009

    Very nice post!

    We all are naturally born “decoders” of others behavioural cues to infer mental states.

    If this was not possible human evolution it would never had happened.

  4. #4 anonymous
    February 18, 2009

    > It must be a way to recognize common interests
    > or give expression to emotions and it has
    > advantages over words. I suppose we exchange
    > recorded signals and respond to expressions
    > that impress us at first sight. Puzzling 😉

    There was a paper or article that I recently read that discussed how human language/communication likely started with sign language/gestures before vocalization. I will offer the suggestion that this may be related.

  5. #5 Milt Lee
    February 18, 2009

    I assume your are familiar with NLP – Neuro Linguistic Programming. NLP has been used to discover thought patterns and to help people see exactly what’s going on with others, and yourself. This technology has been around since the 80’s and it’s still amazing work. The difficulty most people don’t really get is that even though you can learn to read emotional responses that happen virtually instantly – long before most people are even aware of their own response – unless you have calibrated what those “microexpressions” relate to – in each individual person – you end up mind reading. You can see that there was a response, but until you have actually uncovered what that response is related to, you are just making up what you “think” the person is responding to. Still it’s a lot of fun.

  6. #6 Anath
    February 18, 2009

    Wrong, zombie bot. You can not fake a microexpression, it is physically impossible. Paul Ekman’s books go into detail about why this is the case, and I would highly recommend them to anyone remotely interested in the subject, they are EXCELLENT reads.

  7. #7 Rebecca
    February 18, 2009

    While the concept of microexpressions is interesting, it seems that there’s vast over-generalization in believing that every person lies the same way and makes the same expressions. Does every single person have the same “tics” when they lie?

  8. #8 Susan Weinschenk
    February 19, 2009

    Bechara’s 1997 “gambling” study with decks of cards showed that people are aware of “danger” and register it in galvanic skin response (i.e. unconsciously) before they can articulate it consciously. In fact a third of the participants never could articulate what it was they “knew”. I did a little video explaining the Bechara study, (available as podcast and also on youtube) and also wrote about in my book. I’d love to use the microexpression training tool! Here’s the Bechara reference: Bechara, Science 275, 1997.

  9. #9 zombie_bot
    February 19, 2009

    anath, i just borrowed paul ekman’s – facial action coding system cd-rom from a friend and i’m glancing at the manual and videos this very second, why can’t these expressions be faked? since even the videos are obviously “faked”, though they are supposed to be exaggerated expressions as the manual says. a bit more than “WRONG!” and an actual explanation would be amazing.

    i’ve only glanced at this thing so far, but how are these expressions supposed to be interpreted? there’s a !%£^ load of diagrams, videos and images of expressions and muscles but nothing in the manual about how they’re supposed to be interpreted. at a glance, there is no emotional interpretation. where do i get the emotional interpretation from?

    also come on…come on…

  10. #10 zombie_bot
    February 19, 2009

    ok, after reading through some of it, i see there is a scoring system.

    you take the facial movements used to form an expression then add points for each movement then use the score to match with an emotion.

    there is a section about the need for accuracy by psychologists. it’s interesting, but i’m still not convinced.

    i know it’s far from empirical evidence, but some of the worst poker players i’ve played with, have been psychological and body language orientated, the best are mathematically orientated.

  11. #11 rocker19
    February 21, 2009

    to reply to zombie bot:
    while some people can fake expressions they probably don’t know how to change their facial expression to correspond with the expression that they have made.

  12. #12 luna
    February 27, 2009

    A few days ago, for the first time in my life, I think I saw and took account of microexpression exhibited by the person with whom I was speaking. I started learning about and reading Ekman’s work about a year ago and I have found it incredibly interesting.

    Unfortunately, the expression that I witnessed really threw me for a loop. It was a microsecond of furrowed brows and seriously bared teeth that turned into what I guess was a fake smile. It was a highly unsettling and confusing experience for me. I still wonder what to think of it.

  13. #13 Zierin
    February 27, 2009

    To Zombie_bot: I understand your skepticism regarding microexpressions. Hopefully I can make things a bit clearer for you; microexpressions are a muscle response to an emotion that happens at about 1/5 of a second. I won’t say that it is impossible to fake one, but it would be difficult because in “real time” situations, the timing of the expression coincides and is directly proportional to that persons nuero-activity and emotional response (and the strength of that response). When faking it, that timing, or the strength of the expressions vs. the response, or parallel body language would be off, and to the untrained eye, there would just be something “not quite right” about the person. Think back to a time when you’ve made the same or a similar statement; “I can’t really explain it… I just get a bad feeling/vibe from that guy/girl.” Thats your subconscious sending up a red flag because of a percieved threat, deception attempt, or what I like to call a ‘mis-match’ (meaning the timing wasn’t right, etc). My work relies in part on what my colleagues and I had always referred to as “intuition”. It was only recently that we discovered his work, and we have since been pouring over the material and making correlations between Dr Eckmans material and our personnal experience, and I can tell you this; the majority of people who doubt his work, do so because microexpression reading hasn’t worked for them. (or they don’t want people to believe it works because it would reveal a few bones in their closets:) Just because YOU (and I don’t mean you personally) can’t solve a problem, doesn’t mean it CAN’T be solved. I.E. just because someone reads an expression incorrectly, it doesn’t mean the science is wrong or any less accurate. I hope this helps

  14. #14 Zierin
    February 27, 2009

    In addition to my previous post; As an at home experiment, try studying the expressions of young children and infants (preferably infants around 6 months or so). There expressions are generally slower (making them easier to detect), and they haven’t quite learned to lie or mask their emotions yet. It makes things a bit easier for beginners to learn the “how to” when their test subjects haven’t been affected by society and they aren’t always trying to hide something:)

  15. #15 Anath
    March 2, 2009

    I haven’t checked out the actual coding system yet but I’ve read a number of Ekman’s articles and Emotions Revealed. In Emotions Revealed, there is a very in-depth explanation of the ques for emotions, and the wiring behind them. The reason you can’t “really” hide these cues is due to the neurological wiring involved, you start to feel angry and it trips this wire in the brain and that one, and a pulse begins to travel down your facial nerve, and oh shit, hide your growing snarl! A lot of good liars can get VERY good at hiding the microexpressions but if they are videotaped and the tape is slowed down considerably they are still there. The problem with looking for these expressions actively is they often are too fast to perceive, and a skilled poker player has already learned how to hide them, so unless you’re videotaping your opponents, looking for facial cues is a waste of time. As to your link: That is wonderful, I’m all for emotional mindfulness, but a calm mind and relaxed body won’t stop a microexpression if someone actually does make you angry/disgusted/afraid/sad. Psychological balance and literal neural wiring are two different things.

    Zierin provides a good response as well.

  16. #16 Anath
    March 2, 2009

    ** Oh and by “a skilled poker player has already learned how to hide them” I don’t mean 100% get rid of the microexpression but rather minimize their effect and make them more difficult to detect.

  17. #17 Dr. Davis
    March 13, 2009

    For those of you who are saying that you can fake microepressiona your wrong. They are involuntary and cannot be faked. You can attempt to copy these expressionss and come close to the real thing but a professinal can tell the difference.

  18. #18 microexpressionest
    October 30, 2009

    microepressions cannot be faked they are real/proper ways of expression but it is so fast it is very diffecelt to detect

  19. #19 Narco
    December 20, 2009

    ive just become interested in microexpressions, could some one tell me where i should start or if you know of any free training programs??

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