Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Facing expressions

Facial expressions are a universal part of being human. You are born with the ability and instinct to smile, frown, grimace, and scowl. Facial movements are intimately connected with emotions and thought processes, and act as a messaging system for social interactions. There was never a time when someone chose what happiness should look like, or how we should act when we are sad. We inherited these movements, and the use of them normally does not require conscious thought. They are also contagious in a crowd, and greatly influence the emotional states of other people who perceive them.

There are slight cultural differences in how expressions are formed and perceived, but overall, all human beings share this mutual "language". This is a useful language, because it means people don't have to think much about what is going on in the background with their expressions, and can use their "brain space" for other types of thinking. 

But humans are also born with the ability to deceive. People can monitor their facial expressions to suit their needs, and mask or manipulate them at will. That's how we are able to have actors, politicians, and successful criminals. However, apart from oscar winning actors, most people are not completely successful in hiding their true feelings.  Paul Ekman is the most well known psychologist on this subject. He uses subtle facial clues to detect what people are actually feeling. (The show Lie to Me is based on that guy.)

The expression and suppression of facial expressions are two different systems, as is the awareness itself of what your face is doing and what it means. Some muscles cannot be controlled voluntarily, and are only "activated" during a genuine expression of emotion.

Most people are able to integrate these actions into one flawless movement, most of which happens "unconsciously" and without direct attention. 

When someone runs into a coworker they don't like, they automatically play the "fake smile" while carrying on some small talk. When someone experiences some schadenfreude and doesn't want to seem like a nasty human being, they suppress the lurking joyful smirk from others. 

Normally, you just need the tiniest bit of inclination to perform these actions and they all come together for you instantly, while you are busy thinking about other things in your minds eye.

I do not have this experience. 

I am very oblivious to what is going on with my face. I can feel muscle movements, but it is difficult for me to translate those muscle movements into an understanding of what my face looks like to others. I feel upward motions, I feel downward motions. It is very difficult for me to manipulate the expressions I experience though. 

(It's sort of like trying to practice dance moves in complete darkness, and then choreographing a brand new dance in complete darkness.) 

I use the word experience, because these expressions do happen automatically when I am experiencing emotions, in pain, frustrated, confused, etc. It is more that I "allow" them to happen. Monitoring them, and transforming them, is another thing altogether.

If I am trying to remember something; if I am trying to observe another human beings; if I am "busy" doing other cognitive things- then I am often completely oblivious to what is going on with my face. If I suddenly want to, I can't just "pay attention" to my face. I have to wait and put everything else away and consciously try to focus on what the movements feel like, and then basically, guess. The only time I 'know" what my face looks like is when I am looking into a mirror.

There is one "wave" from below that rises in the movement of expressions. Another "wave" from above takes control and rides with the other wave to transform and twist the movements of my facial muscles. Most of the time, these do not operate well together. 

For example, if I happen to think something is hilarious but I am in a situation where that would be inappropriate, I struggle to suppress a smile and probably look quite goofy. The best I can do is remove an expression from my face, instead of "changing it" to an expression of my choice. 

Normally, emotions and expressions are tied together and revolve around each other. If you smile you will feel happy, or at least a slightly positive feeling. This is normally an automatic response. But if I smile, I feel nothing for a few seconds and then a wave of pleasant feeling interrupts my awareness. It is not simultaneous. My facial movements and emotions are often "out of sync". So sometimes emotions are delayed and happen out of context, or after the fact. That is why sometimes it is hard to figure out what emotions I am experiencing. Emotions are not always concrete and separate, they are flowing movements in their own "environment". And sometimes after an emotion has passed, my face will still be "stuck" in an expression after it is no longer relevant

When I smile, I can't make it a flirty smile, an amused smile, a smirking smile, or a pity smile. I can just "smile" and then TRY to control the movements a bit in what I think is the right direction. But, as I explained previously, I have very little awareness of whether or not I am "hitting the mark".

And in social situations where there is conversation, I'm too busy translating and framing my thoughts to concentrate on my facial movements. This may mean if I am frustrated about something (like not being able to properly convey my thoughts) I might have a frustrated look on my face and be completely oblivious about it. The other person may take this to mean that I am frustrated with THEM, or even that I am angry at them, because these expressions are similar. And then their face may show their dislike for my expression, but I might not notice that, or if I do, I won't know why they are feeling that way, because I'm thinking my face is "normal". 

It seems if I let my right brain handle things in my "receiving" non-verbal mode, then I can much more efficiently control the flowing of these emotional movements, and my emotions and expressions are much more "in sync" with each other. However, as I mentioned previously in another post, when I am in this state I don't have access to many words and I don't have access to my "library memory"- only the shifting associative right brain memory. This is okay for general going about in the world, but it is not good for socializing where you are expected to participate in conversations and interact with other human beings and timing counts. You can't really say "hang on for 10 seconds, I have something to say but I have to access my memory first". 

When people "connect" with each other, this is not a metaphor. They are literally, physiologically, connecting with their emotional organs. People who are "in sync" with each other will have perfectly matching facial expressions, and they will absorb and immediately respond to the expression of the other without having to think about it at all. They will take on the characteristics of the other person, unconsciously. This gives people the feeling of being "comfortable" with a person. Sales people know this, and are keen on matching peoples expressions and mannerisms in order to gain their trust and interest in a product. This is called mirroring.

Because I am not able to do this properly, people often feel "uncomfortable" around me, and think that I am "distant". 

When I am in left brain "transmitting mode", which is the majority of the time, since it takes less concentration to maintain, then I am "farther away" from my emotions, and it is like they are blocked off in another room. It is MUCH more difficult to spontaneously create expressions. This is where I go to immediately "turn off" an expression. When I am here, and have access to my library memory, music, and spatial skills, etc., its like half of me is missing. It is much more difficult to immediately respond. For example, if I am walking down the street and I see someone I know, I might have the desire to smile, but it will take 5 seconds to get "cognitively prepared" to be able to smile- even though I might be happy to see them and might be "smiling" inside. It just won't show. Or, I will try to smile and it will come out looking like a bad fake smile, and that person might think I'm faking it because I don't want to see them. 

OR, if I am in a meditative right brain state, I will be able to smile much more quickly, but I will only be able to say  a few short words. 

I am very aware that my two hemispheres are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT BRAINS with completely different abilities. I am never a "whole person" that has access to everything at once. Most of the time there are things I can do to compensate in different ways, but interacting with people and making facial expressions will always be quite a challenge for me. This is what bothers me the most. I am bothered that I am not able to communicate in the way I would like to, and be myself with others. I feel very trapped. 

I either have EXAGGERATED expressions, or NO EXPRESSIONS. 

It is quite true when people say over 90% of communication is nonverbal. If you don't have the right facial expressions, it doesn't matter what you are saying AT ALL in many cases. People will disregard what you are saying and make up their own opinions of you based on what they see from your face, and body posture (which I am also not good at). If you don't do things "right"- people might automatically dislike you, despite the fact that the conversation seems to be going well, and nothing you say will confirm what they have imagined about you (that you are in a bad mood, you are clumsy and unintelligent, passive, cold, unfriendly, etc.). 

I used to be bothered a lot by this, since I couldn't understand it, since I am always listening to what people say FIRST and considering everything else a distant second. But now I understand that people don't choose to feel that way, that my signals get sent to them and it makes them "feel" negative things about me, not "know" negative things about me. It's not something most people can consciously control. Most people tend to trust their "instincts", or "snap judgement" or "gut feeling" about a person. Now that I understand this, it is much easier to accept. I know people are not rejecting me as a person, or what they see as a person, but the illusory feelings they experience while attempting to communicate with me. They actually don't see me at all.