The Face

Facts About the Human Face

The human face is the most significant—and the most photographed—part of the body. First of all, its features define a person’s identity.

The face ‘evolves’ with the growth of a person from infancy through adolescence, middle, and old age; however, it always retains the features already prominent in childhood—unless altered by plastic sugery! ‘A face is every human’s visual trademark.’

The ability to recognize and recall thousands of faces easily and at a glance is a unique talent of human beings alone (Given, 1999). Friends and acquaintances recognize one another before a word is spoken.

a human face
Face drawing courtesy of YedrawOpens in new window

The face is perhaps the most important human art object. People work on their faces as if it were an art canvas: they use cosmetics, colouring, ornaments, adjust hair length and style to make their faces as attractive as possible.

The face has been called the organ of emotion because it provides vital clues by reacting in fractions of a second, often unconsciously, revealing attitudes, moods, opinions a person would rather keep under wraps. Emotionally, ‘the face is mightier than the word’ (Givens, 1999).

All five sensory modalities—sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch—are found on or near the face, and of these, touch is the only modality also to be found elsewhere on the body. But the face is also the most important source of outgoing signals in the form of speech and features of the voice like accent and intonation, as well as myriads of expressions involving the eyes and muscles of the head and face.

Some facial expressionsOpens in new window, like the startle reflex, are entirely involuntary; others, like the smile Opens in new window, may be a genuine expression of pleasure or a deliberate attempt to create an impression of genuine pleasure. Because the face is partly under conscious control, it is a major weapon in our daily attempts to mislead and deceive each other.

In spite of this, the face remains the prime source of information about our emotional states—it is by observing our faces that other people can tell whether we are feeling happy, sad, angry, surprised, or frightened. Looking at our face, they can also tell whether we’re feeling dominant or submissive.

The face is the site for the major sensory inputs and the major communicative outputs. It is a multi-signal, multi-message response system capable of tremendous flexibility and specificity (Ekman, 1979; Ekman and Friesen, 1975).

Dr Paul Ekman’sOpens in new window research (based on the work of Silvan Tomkins) in the study of emotions and their relation to facial expressions took Darwin’s work to the next level, proving that facial expressions of emotion are not culturally determined but biological in origin and universal across human cultures. Eckman co-developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) with Wallace V. Friesen in 1976. The FACS is a system to taxonomize human facial expressions and is still used today by psychologists, researchers, and animators.