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Happily disgusted? Your face will show it: Study

NEW DELHI: Faces are windows to the soul, it is said. Whatever your emotion, the face has a typical expression for it — and this is common to all humanity. Up till now, only six emotions were clearly identifiable through facial expressions. They were — happy, sad, fearful, angry, surprised and disgusted.

Now, researchers at the Ohio State University have found a way for computers to recognize 21 distinct facial expressions—even expressions for complex or seemingly contradictory emotions such as "happily disgusted" or "sadly angry." The research is published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We've gone beyond facial expressions for simple emotions like 'happy' or 'sad.' We found a strong consistency in how people move their facial muscles to express 21 categories of emotions," said Aleix Martinez, a cognitive scientist and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State. "That is simply stunning. That tells us that these 21 emotions are expressed in the same way by nearly everyone, at least in our culture."

"Happily disgusted," for instance, creates an expression that combines the scrunched-up eyes and nose of "disgusted" with the smile of "happy." "Happily surprised" turned out to be a compound of the expressions for "happy" and "surprised." About 93% of the time, the participants expressed it the same way: with the wide-open eyes of surprise and the raised cheeks of happiness—and a mouth that was a hybrid of the two—both open and stretched into a smile.

The resulting computational model will help map emotion in the brain with greater precision than ever before, and perhaps even aid the diagnosis and treatment of mental conditions such as autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Cognitive scientists want to link facial expressions to emotions in order to track the genes, chemicals, and neural pathways that govern emotion in the brain.

Until now, cognitive scientists have confined their studies to six basic emotions mostly because the facial expressions for them were thought to be self-evident, Martinez explained. But deciphering a person's brain functioning with only six categories is like painting a portrait with only primary colors, Martinez said: it can provide an abstracted image of the person, but not a true-to-life one.

The Ohio University scientists photographed 230 volunteers—130 female, 100 male, and mostly college students—making faces in response to verbal cues such as "you just got some great unexpected news" ("happily surprised"), or "you smell a bad odor" ("disgusted"). In the resulting 5,000 images, they painstakingly tagged prominent landmarks for facial muscles, such as the corners of the mouth or the outer edge of the eyebrow. They used the same method used by psychologist Paul Ekman, the scientific consultant for the television show "Lie to Me." Ekman's Facial Action Coding System, or FACS, is a standard tool in body language analysis.

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