Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Emotion Detectors

The universal expressions and vocabulary of emotion

27 October 2020

Emotion Detectors

A smile carries across language barriers – but might our emotional expressions form a universal language? These sculptures, crafted by ancient American civilisations cut off from ‘western’ cultures, may hold clues. They evoke emotional situations – holding a baby, fighting, or torture – yet human volunteers were asked to identify each statue’s emotional state from its face alone. Their successful spots suggest a set of universal facial expressions which transcend time and cultural boundaries: elation and sadness as well as pain, anger and determination. Elsewhere, scientists studying links between our how we express ourselves and mental well-being find the size of one’s 'positive' or 'negative' emotional vocabulary – the emotive words we use to describe the world – may reflect an underlying, and possibly unnoticed, mood. Perhaps for centuries, clues to someone’s mental state remain a combination of recognising physical expressions and those in language – how someone uses their emotive words.

Written by John Ankers

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