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Can't Hide Your Lying Eyes

By Sean Henahan, Access Excellence

San Diego, CA. (5/5/00)- Did the dog really eat that student's homework? New research presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology suggests we often miss obvious facial clues that might help distinguish fact from fiction.

Researchers from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center presented a study indicating that most people focus on the lower part of the face when dealing with others. Yet the person's true feelings were far more likely to be 'telegraphed' through the upper face.

"Perhaps the old adage 'the eyes are the windows to the soul' may be correct," said Calin Prodan, MD, a neurology resident at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City and lead author of the study.

"Humans learn in early childhood to manipulate facial emotions to make them appropriate to a given social situation which, in time, allows them to engage in deceitful behavior," said Prodan. "For example, a person who is angry with their superior may display a 'social' smile rather than an angry scowl when asking for a raise."

The Oklahoma researchers are studying the ways in which the brain recognizes nd processes facial emotion. They conducted study in which 30 volunteers were briefly shown line drawings of a human face displaying different emotions on the upper versus lower face. Depicted emotions included happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise and neutrality. The volunteers were asked to view the drawings in either their right or left visual fields. This allowed the researchers to evaluate which side of the brain was processing the information contained in the illustrations.

The study participants were far more likely to identify the more easily simulated lower face emotions, regardless of visual field. When asked to focus on the upper face, they did so best when the pictures were shown to their left visual field (processed by the right side of the brain). However, most continued to identify the lower facial emotion when viewing in their right visual field (processed by the brain's left side).

"Recognition of emotional displays on the lower face appear to be processed by the brain's left hemisphere as part of the social -- or learned -- emotional system, whereas emotional displays on the upper face appear to be processed by the brain's right hemisphere as part of the primary -- or inborn -- emotional system," said Prodan. "These findings help us to gain a better understanding of the neurologic basis for affective communication, which will increase a physician's ability to assess how diseases, such as stroke and dementia, alter these functions."

People may naturally focus on the lower face to aid in speech comprehension during conversation, especially in noisy environments. Social conventions may also play a role as many cultures consider it unacceptable to look someone directly in the eye -- the "evil eye" belief. This may be interpreted as aggressive or threatening behavior, similar to those observed in some animal species.

"There is a natural learning curve starting in early childhood for acquiring the skills to read facial displays of emotion," Prodan said. "We certainly can train ourselves to pay more attention to upper facial displays, which can help us read a person's true emotional state. However, this can have a downside because of social conventions."

Professional interrogators such as FBI investigators have known for some time that people who are lying tend to exhibit numerous physical and verbal cues. Neurologists and psychiatrists have only recently begun to devise methods that might help measure these cues objectively.

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