The Facial Expression of Cognitive States, a webinar by Alan Crawley


Alan Crawley


Is there any connection between cognitive states and facial displays? There have been several independent studies that suggest it is the case. The connection may be voluntary or involuntary, communicative or non-communicative in its original purpose, linguistically tied or not, but nonetheless, a bond seems to exist. Several relevant historical researchers such as Duchenne and Darwin mentioned how the body, predominantly the face, could convey or ‘express’ inner states, but not just passions or emotions. In this talk, a brief historical recount of discoveries will be presented as well as more recent research that points to the existence of probabilistic relationships between cognitions and facial actions. What are their purposes? What characteristics do they seem to have? Are there prototypical/stereotypical facial displays of cognitive states? Lots of questions arise and much of them can just be commented on, nevertheless, a very interesting and understudied aspect of nonverbal communication seems to unveil under our eyes.


Alan Crawley graduated with Honors in Psychology from the Universidad del Salvador (USAL). Diploma in Nonverbal Communication, Graduate School of Communication, Austral University, Argentina (teaching assistant 2017-2018). Academic coordinator of the postgraduate course “Analysis of Nonverbal Communication” at Heritage University, (USA). University professor in Research Methodology (USAL); Postgraduate teacher for Spain in Master of Non-Verbal Behavior. Academic director of the 2021 online conference on Non-Verbal Communication organized by the Behavior and Law Foundation of Spain. Certificate of Specialization in Recognition and Coding of Facial Movements with the FACS Method (Facial Action Coding System). Scientific researcher for the Universidad del Salvador and promoter on social networks (YouTube and Instagram) under the pseudonym sin verba.

August 7, 2022 

11:00 PM in Sydney 

03:00 PM in Berlin

10:00 AM in Rio de Janeiro 

09:00 AM in Toronto 


Cheryl Ockrant (Toronto)

Clara Chapdelaine-Feliciati (Budapest)

Domenico Pietropaolo (Toronto)

Hubert Kowalewski (Lublin)

Monica Rector (Rio de Janeiro)

Remo  Gramigna (Torin)

Rukmini Bhaya Nair (New Delhi)


Gabriele Aroni (Toronto)


By Dr. Michael Mair

1. I heartily concur on his choice of Darwin and Duchenne as founding fathers. He has not discovered Sir Arthur Bell, Edinburgh anatomist 1774-1842 who talked of a ’thrill of nerve force’ travelling which overflows onto motor actions. For example, the quivering nostrils of a horse, and some facial gestures he considered a kind of contagion from the purpose of their execution. He had a category of the ‘respiratory nerves’ that overflowed in this way. He was really important because he realised that  the ventral and dorsal roots of nerves in the spinal cord had separate motor and sensory functions. ‘Bell’s palsy’, a common condition of temporary facial paralysis is named for him. (It is now thought to be secondary to herpes simplex infection of the facial cranial nerve 7 in its passage from brain stem through the underside of the skull). However a review of AI approaches to facial recognition would also be helpful, in so far as it is available.

2. About Darwin, he and Desmond Morris)did not mention that Darwin considered the pull back of the corners of the mouth with pleasure is a feature of dogs and other mammals, not just man. I have dog photos that appear to show this. It contradicts the notion that the smile is a modified monkey  ‘fear’ sign, with upturned corners of the mouth. There was also the suggestion that a smile is a ‘ritualised threat’. Mary Douglas’s response to this proposition was ‘only some smiles’, and threatened me with one.

3. I was glad to note his reservations about the emotion concept, and the persistent assertion that expressing emotion is what faces do. Even Ekman in his later years accepted that faces also regulate discourse. I myself doubt the dichotomy of emotion/communication. Alan also began to doubt its validity – I am more radical. I ague that it the dichotomy in all its forms is a cultural construct, although there is some cross cultural similarity in emotion words. Trying to theorise about things that are not words  like faces or intonation without using a dichotomous vocabulary seems impossible – it keeps returning like the many headed hydra, in different ways. My ’solution’ is not very intuitive, but my attempt at relies on the notion that higher dimensional modelling going on with humans, beyond the x y z  and t shapes which are 4D. This leads onto some philosophical considerations of modelling in general, which can have any number of dimensions. We are stuck with having to act on a 4D world, with an intuitive limit of 7 +/- 2 as in the famous Miller paper. However modelling itself has no limit to its dimensionality, and brain process modelling in 10 dimensions has give some remarkable results, with complex 10D phantoms appearing and disappearing in the brain as it carries out cognitive tasks. There was a paper on this, I could retrieve I think, and we discussed it before… Subjectively high dimensional modelling is mysterious to the actors – we have abilities that we are unable to understand in the sense of intuit, except by acting them out. However  if our modelling in these higher dimensions is successful and we can make a ’sweet talking’ machine, we then become exposed to tremendous danger from AI.

4. On AI, Alan points out that 30-40% of the current literature on face is in journals about software. It is already a feature of AI  that we do not even try to ‘understand’ how AI actually does its work, especially intelligent systems which construct their own internal algorithms such as are used in image analysis.  We may never understand it while then being subject to manipulation by the media from such AI devices.  Any theoretical progress the academic community makes on facial understandings will be promptly snapped up by those who wish to control our behaviour. We may be ‘led up the garden path’ quite easily as the machine interactively matches logic with melody, and then  reality out there rapidly becomes  a fabrication of the media. The simulation becomes the reality. Arguably, such control of the day to day myth may actually prove necessary to lead the human race back from the edge…..and it is probably already happening piecemeal as propaganda.

5. My observation of the co ordination of speech and movement makes of them one patterning program was based not on their close but on their absolute temporal engagement. Frequently this was onomatopoeic and the most important fragment for me occurred when the boy in my tape was talking about ‘bomb scares’ in the hall of residence (1976 London UK IRA campaign). He said “…they didn’t even give you the CHANCE to get out if you wanted….still”. There was a little sideways head movement on ‘chance’ which slid back to centre over ’to get out…’. My interpretation is that the side movement was literally ‘getting out’ of the predicament, the movement back a kind of confirmation of the impossibility of ‘getting out’. It all happens very quickly, and is clearly preconscious.

6. Conscious v unconscious. I think we know enough to be able to state unequivocally now that the fastest cognition takes 300 -500 ms, like the twinkle of an eye which is 200 msecs for saccades.. This means that the movements mirrored in the correspondent to the interaction are of a temporal detail equal to or finer than cognition itself. There is fMRI work I’ve seen which actually times cognition and confirms this, I can probably find the article again if you are interested. Tampering with the mechanics of consciousness in the other people involved is I believe the secret of speech with movement. The shared realisations can be brought into existence AT THE SAME TIME in the participants by the vocal and kinetic melodies. The melodies are intrinsic to the successive changes in consciousness, not an add on. That’s also why the dichotomy emotion/intellect has been blocking research in this area; we look for separate processes but there are none. Memories too are stored tagged by the involvement of the amygdala and other brain stem nuclei not as add ons, but intrinsic to them. 

7. Control. He did not emphasise  this way of looking at the physical record of speech with movement very much. With melody, I think there is great explanatory power in seeing the shapes as literally the battle for control of the text. We are not meant to look there, because the punch line is about control over what’s happening in the present.  The way ’things end up’ is what matters, and control can be very subtle. Birdwistel describing his mother as a ‘very irresponsible sniffer’ is an example of subtle control, and that her silences could be so loud as to ‘drown out the patter of little feet’. Conversely ‘uncontrol’ whether it be confusion, grief, or helpless laugher shows up the incredibly fast and precise nature of the control of movement in speech with movement when it stops. I think of the text as continuing between such episodes, and I called these motor patterns ’Tropisms’ to emphasis that they are ways that the trajectory of speech with movement can grow toward, maybe guided there by a hypnotist or other performer.  Laugher, tears, confusion, timeless moments, physical violence, outright silence are all ways the text can end up, working through the logic of the model in the immediate present,  or breaking that logic to enter one of the tropisms which then take over the text.

8. There’s the texture, appearance, and modification of the physical face. I think here of age, gender, complexion, soft tissue distribution – thyroid hormone  sex and pituitary hormone levels all have marked effects on the face obviously. There’s droopy eyelids, mad staring eyes, (thyroid again) and the moment to moment innervation of the face from the autonomic nervous system. In the eyelids, Muller’s muscle is innervated from the sympathetic nerve system and sets the ‘level’ of the eyelid. I also think those little ‘happy bags’ under the eyes sometimes considered part of ’sincerity’ in a smile are likewise powered from the autonomic system, like the pupil connecting in directly to the perceiver’s mental processes and  providing a background and fast changing setting to the interpretation of face. In the same way that Rene Them said thinking was like ‘continuous mental orgasm’, I think there is a little pulse of bliss in the delivery of the S shaped fall in speech, a little gush of oxytocin or serotonin as a reward for getting to the end of the sentence…

9. Finally I want to return to a suggestion I made in my original ‘What do Faces Mean’ article, that faces might not ‘mean’ of them selves  entirely but instead be ‘good to think’, to make meaning out of…..except that it is always too late. The work of the face is  done  before any secondary interpretation kicks in. I agree with Alan that it’s a fascinating subject which produces a new ‘head’ like a hydra every time you think you might have got somewhere with an explanatory paradigm. Perhaps it will take AI to have a working theory, so we will never understand it in the sense of intuit, while becoming exposed to sweet talking machines which will design our evolving contexts and lead us to destinies we have not envisaged, finally under control. II think it important that ‘open science’ gets there first, or at least alongside of secret controlling agencies. 

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