The CIA said thanks but no thanks to San Francisco psychologist Paul
Ekman when he offered years ago to teach special agents how to read faces to
Today, the CIA is one of dozens of agencies and companies calling Ekman,
who runs the Human Interaction Lab at UC San Francisco.
Law enforcement isn't the only group that's done an about-face on Ekman,
who can tick off the Latin names for all 43 facial muscles one moment and
identify the precise muscles used by Bill Clinton when he lied about Monica
Lewinsky the next.
CNN recently asked Ekman to analyze a dozen video tapes of Osama bin Laden.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he has taught FBI and CIA agents how to
detect lies during questioning or observation. He has worked with actors and
been hired by animators, including DreamWorks, Pixar and Industrial Light and
Magic, to teach the taxonomy of expressions.
This week, Ekman, who at 68 is preternaturally spry and unfailingly
inquisitive, with the intense gaze of someone who's made a business of
studying faces, is in Florida to share his expertise with a group of the
nation's leading criminal profilers.
"I think I've just been lucky in my career," Ekman said last week , sitting
in his art- and light-filled home high in the Oakland hills. "Everyone is
interested in faces."
Maureen O'Sullivan, a psychologist at the University of San Francisco,
described Ekman's work in philosophical and practical terms.
"What Paul did is come up with a new theory of emotion, of how people
around the world show expression in the same way and are united by that," said
O'Sullivan, who has worked with Ekman since the early 1970s.
"He also came up with a facial coding system which allows you to describe a
facial action by a number," O'Sullivan said. "Hundreds of people around the
world have learned the system and apply it to people's pathologies, to things
such as degrees of depression or trauma to the brain."
Joseph Campos, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, believes Ekman is
"responsible for the central importance of the study of emotion in psychology
More than 30 years ago, when Ekman first set out to determine whether
facial expressions are innate or learned, he was derided by esteemed social
scientists, including the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead. Although
Charles Darwin had written in 1872 about the consistency of expressions in
mammals, social scientists of the 1960s and 1970s believed expressions are
learned through culture.
"People thought I was crazy, that my idea was misled or misguided," said
The odyssey that followed took him to Japan, Brazil and Argentina. He
carried photographs of people making distinctive expressions and found that
everywhere he went, there was a common understanding of the meaning of the
Ekman was becoming convinced that unlike hand gestures, which he had
studied earlier and concluded are indeed culturally influenced, expressions
may in fact be innate. Still, he wondered whether popular culture was
responsible for common expressions.
In the late 1960s, having decided to travel to a place without popular
culture and far from mass media, he set off for the jungles of Papua New
Guinea. The natives he met along the way had never seen a Westerner and
marvelled when he lit a match. To his amazement, he found their facial
expressions had the same meaning as the expressions of people in developed
cities around the world.
When he returned to San Francisco, convinced that expressions are
biological, he sought to understand the origins of facial configurations. He
and colleague Wallace Friesan poured over anatomy textbooks to learn every
muscle in the face. They spent months sitting across from one another,
locating muscles in their own faces and making corresponding expressions.
They determined that 43 muscles create 10,000 visible facial configurations,
of which 3,000 are meaningful. When they couldn't make a particular muscle
move, they would head next door to UCSF's anatomy department and ask surgeons
to stick them with a needle to stimulate the uncooperative muscle.
Seven years and dozens of needles later, Ekman and Friesan put together the
Facial Action Coding System, a massive compendium of photos and text
describing muscles, combinations of muscles and resulting expressions. The
coding system is used primarily by law enforcement officials and health care
The study of faces has many applications and is at its best when combined
with a study of hand gestures and speech.
Since Sept. 11, his work has not changed but has intensified, he says. In
addition to working with a joint FBI-CIA counterterrorism group, Ekman has
taught at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center based in Glynco, Ga.
"When looking for deception, you have to rely on discrepancies," Ekman
explained. "You look for what I call hot spots, things that don't fit together,
such as the voice not matching the speech or the expression doesn't fit the
voice. Look for any of these things that are discordant."
He teaches health care professionals and others to look for fleeting,
barely perceptible looks, which he calls "microexpressions" that can give away
For example, when a muscle called the frontalis pars medalis -- located in
the area of the inner eyebrow -- is slightly raised, it reveals a sadness. "If
you see this, you'll know the person is sad even before they know it."
He also said there are ways to know if someone's smile is spontaneous or
forced. Ekman has named the spontaneous smile the Duchenne smile, after the
19th century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne, who studied the workings
of muscles in the face.
A forced smile requires flexing of a muscle called the zygomatic major,
which reaches from the cheekbone to the corner of the lips. A spontaneous
smile, prompted by a basic emotion, is caused when the zygomatic is flexed as
well as small muscles around the eye, which are nearly impossible to tighten
As for the world's most famously enigmatic smile, Ekman has his own take.
"Mona Lisa's smile is very interesting because it involves just the lips,"
Ekman said. "And she is facing one way and looking slightly the other way.
That's one of the things that happens in flirtation. There's a slight smile,
you flick your eyes to look at someone and flick them back. You could say that
she was flirting."
When Ekman sits down to watch the Osama bin Laden tapes, which span from
1996 to 2001, he will "look to see how bin Laden feels about what he is saying,
" whether he is "confident or hesitant, is angry, disgusted or disdainful and
whether his emotions change over the four-year period."
Ekman's decades of face time have also provided him with an endless source
of amusement, a way to pass time in airports and fodder for dinner table
He recalls watching Clinton before he was elected and thinking he had an
expression of a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Later, he watched President Clinton when he told the country he did not
have sexual relations with "that woman," referring to Monica Lewinsky.
"It was so clear he was lying," Ekman said. He not only saw deception in
his expressions, but became convinced he was lying when Clinton used the words
"One of the things people do when they lie is to use distancing language,"
Ekman said. "We know he knew Monica. Yet he used the words 'that woman.' "
Ekman later contacted a friend who worked for Clinton, to offer his
services. The administration decided, however, that it might not be helpful if
it were revealed the president was consulting a lie expert.
In March, Ekman will release a new book, "Emotions Revealed," to be
published by Times Books. A combination of scholarship and how-to, it will
include countless photos of expressions and microexpressions and a CD-ROM for
those who want to make a business or hobby of studying faces.
On a tour of his home, where he lives with his wife, Mary Ann Mason, the
dean of graduate studies at UC Berkeley, Ekman said the greatest misconception
people have about him is that he can read minds by studying faces.
"I can only read expressions," he says.
And he insists he knows when to turn off the scientist's studious gaze.
He has two children, Eve, 22, and Tom, 30. When his daughter was born, he
decided he had to set an example -- and set limits to his inquisitions.
Having written about why kids lie -- typically out of fear, he says -- he
made a point of never setting his kids up to lie. If he knew they'd come home
two hours after curfew, he didn't ask them the next morning what time they got
in. Instead, he would ask why they were two hours late.
The expert on lying wanted to make sure he never became anything close to
an expert liar.
"I've seen so much deception," Ekman said, "and studied it for so long that
when Eve was born, I tried to adopt a practice of seeing if I could get
through a day without telling a single lie. I think it's important to take
your work to heart."
E-mail Julian Guthrie at email@example.com.