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Don’t get so emotional – there are only FOUR to choose from, say UK scientists!

Computer-generated image of two faces showing different expressions

6 February 2014

Scroll down to meet the student from Ningbo, China, whose Psychology PhD is helping scientists reach the heart of human emotions!

Happy, sad, angry, disgusted, frightened, confused, jealous, doubtful, amazed… The dictionary is packed with words to describe emotions.

But scientists at the University of Glasgow have managed to identify four basic emotions that they say are the foundations of how human beings express themselves.

Previous research had narrowed down our emotions to just six: happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, anger and disgust.

But by combining cutting-edge computer technology with psychological theory, the team from Glasgow’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology showed that some facial expressions, such as fear and surprise, have the same face movements in the early stages.

The same was true for ‘anger’ and ‘disgust’, which were initially expressed with the same movements.

Using the Generative Face Grammar – a system that takes images of all 42 individual facial movements – the scientists created realistic 3D dynamic faces with different expressions, then asked people to categorise the emotions these expressions showed. (See these expressions for yourself on YouTube!)

Dr Rachael Jack, lead researcher on the project, said: ‘Signals are designed by both biological and social evolutionary pressures to optimise their function.

‘First, early danger signals confer the best advantages to others by enabling the fastest escape. Secondly, physiological advantages for the expresser – the wrinkled nose prevents inspiration of potentially harmful particles, whereas widened eyes increases intake of visual information useful for escape – are enhanced when the face movements are made early.

‘What our research shows is that not all facial muscles appear simultaneously during facial expressions, but rather develop over time, supporting a hierarchical biologically-basic to socially-specific information over time.'

Using the same technique, Dr Jack previously revealed that facial expressions are not universal – people from different parts of the world use different facial movements to signal the same emotions – thereby challenging long-held beliefs of universality. Dr Jack’s team is now extending the research and adapting the study to look for cultural differences and similarities in the stages of facial expressions.

Meet the student

Chaona Chen, 23, from Ningbo in Zhejiang province, China, is helping to take Dr Jack’s study to a whole new level with her PhD at the University of Glasgow. Inspired to pursue a career in Psychology during her undergraduate degree at China’s Wuhan University, Chaona felt the UK offered a world of promise, as she explains…

‘The UK has a strong tradition in psychology and neuroscience and there are a lot of good studies going on here, so I applied to a few universities in the UK, including Glasgow. I am enjoying it so much and have learned a lot. People from other fields give you ideas and reviews. There’s lots of collaboration – for example, there is a post-doctoral student here who is very experienced at coding and technical systems, and I have found out from him all sorts of computer programming techniques, which have been so useful for this project.

‘My Chinese background is really helpful for the study we’re doing now. We needed a person who knows a lot about Chinese culture and has good English language skills as well. Although emotions and social traits have been researched for a few years by Western academics, when it comes to Chinese people or people who aren’t Western, they often just translate the ‘emotion’ words from Western cultures. This doesn’t always work – for example, Dr Jack’s research shows that Chinese or Eastern cultures tend to express much more with their eyes than with other muscles, compared with Western cultures. That’s why this cross-cultural research is so important.

‘I came here straight from undergraduate to do a PhD and I like the fact that I’m doing things that working scientists do – experiments or programming – instead of having to attend a certain number of lectures. I get to travel around a lot to do training. I’ve been to EEG workshops in Aberdeen and Dundee, and I’m attending a conference in Germany in February to broaden my skills and embark on new research directions with Dr Jack.

‘Psychological research in China is in its very first stages, so if we can develop it, we will have a future. The academic side here in the UK is quite developed – I want to take that back to China and help it grow.’

Find out more about Dr Rachel Jack's work in cubed: The British Council's online science magazine

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