When grammar and emotions step on their own toes…

There is something very troubling about the following.

Postulation- American Sign Language facial grammar has a seemingly inevitable activation of what are now confirmed to be known as Mirror Neurons. And this postulation lends to the further postulating of-we may be in a little bit of trouble…

Firstly- explore the idea of the Mirror Neuron and then explore its connection to American Sign Language facial grammar.

What is a Mirror Neuron?

According to WiseGeek.com, “mirror neurons are special neurons in the brain that underlie the experience of empathy, and also play a critical function in learning. What makes mirror neurons distinct is that they fire both when performing a certain action, and observing another person, especially of the same species, perform that action. So the neuroactivity is the same whether it’s you performing the action or another. Two locations in the brain where mirror neurons have been observed are the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal cortex. Mirror neurons are likely a common neurological feature of many if not all primates […]”

It’s almost easier to understand Empathy etymologically along with the other pathos, and these are the definitions that I will stick to when using them in this post.

  1. Empathy – Em Pathos means to be in, or get into, the feeling of someone else. In other words, “I understand and relate to how you feel so deeply and intuitively that I too feel this.”
  2. Sympathy – Sym Pathos means to be with the feeling of someone else. As if to say, “I can see what you are going through, I have been in similar situations, I may relate to your emotions this way.”
  3. Apathy – A Pathos means to be against (a) feelings (pathos). In other words, “I can not relate,” “I do not care to relate.
  4. Compassion – I feel needs to be a part of this because it is often confused, and used as a synonym for, sympathy when it may not be that at all. Com Passion etymologically means to come together and suffer.

In other words, I may smile because you have smiled. I have become empathetic to your emotion of happiness.

When you cry, I experience sadness because I have become, again, empathetic to your emotion.

This is something that is built into our evolution for a very specific purpose. A facial expression of disgust indicates a possible poison for example. And our mirror neurons tell us that that which has been ingested by our companion should not be ingested by us.

…and thus our empathy (that is our em pathos (in and into emotion)) tells us that that thing that disgust is being expressed towards is something that it would be wise for us to avoid.

A face of fear…

(Duchenne de Boulogne (1801 – 1875))

…will activate the mirror neurons of the same neuroactivity that tells us in the language of blood filling our thighs and legs to say, “run!”

We can even find the activation of mirror neurons through cross species interaction!

 (Evolution of Neonatal Imitation. Gross L, PLoS Biology Vol. 4/9/2006, e311)

Amazing no?

“A mirror neuron […] fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate[s] and other species including birds.” (Wikipedia contributors. “Mirror neuron.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 Apr. 2012. Web. 15 May. 2012.)

As I stated above, when you smile then I shall most likely do the same.

For further, enjoyable, understanding of what the mirror neuron is all about—please take the few minutes to watch one of my Neuroscientists, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran’s discussion on the subject.

Now that we have a basic understand of what mirror neurons are and what part they play in human empathy and what part they played in evolution—we next turn to Paul Ekman’s work.

Ekman’s revolutionary, “Facialencyclopedia,” the Facial Action Coding System  (FACS) has an alphanumerical code for each expression that the human face is capable of making. For example fear can be read as 1+2+4+5+20+26 while something as simple as happiness is 6+12.

Moreover, depending on the intensity of the emotion exhibited on the face a level of A through E is assigned to it. For example, when I wake up and it’s raining, I’m usually at a 6+12 but give me a nice 68 degree Saturday at my godson’s soccer game and I’m exhibited the facial expression, a FACS score of, 6D+12D. Does this make sense?

Now we have mirror neurons and we have the expressions that the human face is capable of making. And now that these two things are, hopefully, understood we are now led to the trouble of American Sign Language facial grammar.

William G. Vicars is a man that I refer to often when I am considering this idea as one to worry about. (No offense Mr. Vicars). If we visit his website LifePrint.com we find a myriad example and expressions of the faces that are the grammatically correct inflections to convey information through American Sign Langauge.

Now, American Sign Language, Taiwanese Sign Language, French Sign Language etc. have all, just as all spoken languages have, evolved naturally out of the human necessity to communicate with each other.

But what is something that stands as a barrier? In spoken languages we have vocal inflection, we have intonation. These indicate the severity or lack of severity of what we are speaking in a conversation. Now take a signed language and consider that there is no vocal inflection with which to intensify or mitigate your subject.

What then?

As the evolution of American Sign Language had it, the inflection has occurred, among other places, in the face and in the position of the body.

When a hearing individual expresses something that has an emotion attached to it- their face will indicate, properly, the felt emotion. As will a deaf persons face. There is no difference here.

Where we run into the difficulty is in a grammatical structure found present in, mainly, the forehead. And, accordingly, this is where we will now focus our attention.

Grammatically speaking when you are asking, in conversation, a “WH question,” (that is, who, what, where, when and why) your forehead furrows in such a way that it is, quite literally, a partial anger expression. The grammar shares part of the same FACS score as does the emotion of anger. Furthermore, when you are asking a, “Yes or No,” question your eyebrows raise in such a manner that resembles, FACS score as well, the emotion of surprise.

The FACS score for the emotion of Anger is 4: the brow lowerer (depressor glabellaedepressor superciliicorrugator supercilii), 5: the upper lid raiser (levator palpebrae superioris), 7: the lid tightener (orbicularis oculi (pars palpebralis)) and 23: the lip tightener (orbicularis oris). Anger is then written out in a FACS score, simply, as 4+5+7+23. And, as mentioned before, would have an assigned A-E depending on it’s intensity.

And what are all of these muscles? Well, here is a photoshop project that took me far too long to accomplish that will help with a quick reference.

When the emotion of anger is presented on a person’s face (fully, as a microexpression, as a partial expression) whom we are speaking with then the mirror neurons in our premotor cortex and the inferior parietal cortex are activated consequently forcing empathy that, thanks to eons of evolutionary conditioning, cause us to, in that moment, assume, assess and conclude our way to a solution of how to deal with the anger we are presented with. Many people fight back, many people are able to talk their way through it. The cycle of emotions is a whole other idea that fits into this, but I fear would make this post much longer than it already is.

Now that we understand the FACS score of the emotion of anger and the consequences that are manifested by our involuntary empathetic reactions we can move on to the FACS score for the grammatical features of a “WH” question.

And it is simply a 4.

Does this mean anything at all? What is the point?

Scenario 1- two deaf friends sit at a bar and one asks the other, “what did you do this morning?” Upon asking his friend he presents a FACS score of 4A and since the conversation is neutral and the two are at an emotional baseline an involuntary reaction of empathy towards a 4A is not noticeable, if it is even there at all. (As Ramachandran said, we do have self-correcting mechanisms that will inhibit this most times.) The end result in this scenario is nothing to worry about, it’s a normal inflection of the face, a grammatically correct means of asking a question etc.

Scenario 2- a deaf child has just failed a math test, knowing that his parents are strict about getting good grades he arrives home nervous. His mother simply asks him, “how was the math test?” And upon her face is a grammatically correct 4A FACS score. The end result then is what? The boy is already nervous and when we experience an emotion we are biologically inclined to search for experiences and stimuli that will further reinforce the emotional experience. The boys mirror neurons activate and he is empathetic to a FACS score of 4A which is simultaneously grammatically correct and a partial emotional expression.

Scenario 3- a deaf couple is arguing.

Scenario 4- a special needs deaf child is in crisis mode.


(I once saw a student hit her teacher in the face after the teacher had asked her soothingly, “What happened this morning?” Later when the girl was being engaged in a “life space crisis intervention,” she admitted that she punched her teacher, “because of her stupid fucking facial expressions.”)

Here, for example, a series of eyebrows (mine and a few others) that are indicating either grammar or anger. Which are which? Can you tell easily?

If I were to explain the similarities of a “Yes or No” question and the facial expression of surprise I would only, at this point, be repeating myself.

At this point I find myself stuck to be honest. My research in this is limited to the idea stage.

How do I prove that this is a problem? How do I show that this is actually occurring?

I’ve written to Paul Ekman about this idea and he thanked me for my, “fascinating letter and observations,” and proceeded to give me a list of people to speak with regarding this research. After contacting one of those people, the Professor Emeritus of Psychology San Diego State University, she replied that my research was, “interesting and provocative,” but something she’d never considered. She too gave me more names of people to discuss this with.

As I am currently on this goose chase I am leaving off with a few questions.

Have I explained this properly? Is the idea coherent? What forms of research is suggested from this point forth? Agree? Disagree? Criticisms? Etc.


A Mother’s Day Letter

Dear Mom,

We both know what today is; it is May 12, 2003…

I am in the “treacherous stairway” at the Tricou House at 711 Bourbon St. I am carrying a large black plastic bag of wasted food, left over and careless tourist nibbles poshly pushed off their plates to say, “oh, no, no, this Andouille sausage simply will not suffice, it is just too spicy.”

Twenty-four hours into the past I am on the phone with you, your voice is dragging the way too much alcohol, too many narcotics, too many anxiolytics, too many all at once taking control from a tongue and mechanically touching random ridges, bumbling over bilabials, stumbling a cough and glottal stop…


(I can hear breathing, shallow, breathing like seeing the leaves or gnats pirouette on the sidewalk and hearing nothing, hearing no thing, breathing like a wind vain, breathing like a hemispherical cup anemometer spinning only when I look away and it’s only a squeal, a squeak off in the periphery.)

Tomorrow I am working, I won’t have time to call, I’m sorry, I want to wish you a happy mother’s day, how are you?”

(I’m praying for the first time in 12 years.)

“Fine, I’m, somewhere and doing- ok.”

(I can hear your deep breathing, your dry mouth and too much saliva collecting around your tonsils. I can hear your eyelids like a diver splashlessly clearing water. I can hear your lips turn down, I can hear your mouth unable to open wide, lips like waiting over petals, lips like turning the page in a book that I’m not sure I will keep enjoying)

“You don’t sound very well.”

(You sound like you are dying, you sound like a voice I will never hear again. You sound like I am now lost–losing you.)

“I think I took the wrong. Something pills that shouldn’t mix. The Dr. said I’m fine, I love you.”

(“I love you.” The words come out hollow in a Milton form of vacant chaos… There is nothing I can say to convey how much I need you.)

“Happy mother’s day, if I find time- can I call you tomorrow?”

(It is already 24 hours into the future, I know this is our last conversation.)

“Yes. Tomorrow. Thank you, I love you. Don’t forget.”

It is 24 hours into the future, 5:15pm, May 13th, 2003. I am in the “treacherous stairway” at the Tricou House at 711 Bourbon St. where a woman, Penelope, is said to have lost her footing decades ago and fell to her death, I am carrying a large black plastic bag of wasted left overs, careless tourists nibble poshly at pushed off plates to say, “oh, no, no, Oysters Evangeline simply will not suffice, how is this even palatable to these southerners?

I can feel my mobile vibrate in my right pocket, there isn’t anything I can do. It vibrates again, 5 more times. A voicemail is left. I’m pouring water down the cobble stone hallway flushing vomit into the gutters of Bourbon St. Errol, the porter, hands, under table, to me a shot of Glenlivet and with index finger to lips he exhales with a tongue pressed against his alveolar ridge, “shhh.”

My throat and belly is burning.

My phone is vibrating again.

“Hello? Dad, what’s up?”

(It is 3 minutes into the future- I can’t even breathe to speak)

“Are you busy? You sound like you are at work?”

(It is 2 minutes into the future- my boss is just telling me, “go, you’re covered, whatever this is, go home, you’re fine.”)

“Yes, but I have a break, what’s up?”

(It is 1 minute into the future– I am nearly asphyxiating.)

“Sit down, light a cigarette, if you can- light two.”

My father is on the other end of my mobile in broken words, no sentences that I can understand, “your mother,” a ringing presents itself in my ears, temporary tinnitus, “it appears to be suicide, she hanged herself” (I didn’t call her), “are you ok?” (I didn’t call her, I said I would), “I will call Molly, Jason? Are you there? Don’t go anywhere, I’ll have Molly come get you. Just stay where you are.”

It is 5:25pm, May 13th, 2003. I am at the corner of Orleans St. and Bourbon St. watching a kaleidoscopic of vomit and tears pool into fractals between my feet. A man is approaching me he says, “can’t be that bad, and this, this you can not do here.”

“My mother,” I can barely gasp, “suicide, mother’s day, I didn’t call her.”

It is 5:30pm, May 13th, 2003. A man is taking his hand off the shoulder of a crying boy, he is walking backwards and trips over the curb. Speechlessly he mutters something rhyming with compassion.

Through a haze of a chiaroscuro, almost sfumato, blur of tears, white hyperventilation stars dance in my vision and color, for the first time in my colorblind life, is all I can make sense of…

Neon, cardinal, agate quartz, Ares red.

Vitreous humor, bone, teeth, lightning white.

Acorn, hawk, bear, haire, duck brown.

What I am is a fragment of jumping leaping skipping falling and flashforwards, flashbacks, flashups and downs and flashsideways. (I didn’t call you.)

I am in the passenger side of my 1987 Chevrolet Cheyenne like leaves carried from corner to building, to hawk eyes, and birds, to lakes, and rivers, to corner by your death breath rattle.

I am bones strung together by too thin wire in an opaque translucent skin sack centripetally, centrifugally, moving like a marionette guided by a motion puppeteer and vacant.

You are not gone, you cannot be.

“It’s a suicide, she hanged herself.”

It is 7 years into the future. I am on my road bicycle leaving my North Side apartment to go to work. The route I take is from the North Side up California and down Allegheny Ave. When I hit the tail end of the hill on California ave. I am, always, all ways, experiencing the exercise high that people talk about. I do this 7 miles to work and then 7 home.

I am at the peak of California’s hill and my mind is nothing but an LHC of thoughts I couldn’t even begin to describe. The distances between all neurons are collapsing from minute distances to–no longer measurable. The bike is the road is the path is the commute to work is the responsibility of a job is the reason I have a job is the reason I live in Pittsburgh is the voice…

That shouts from within to ask me, “why?”

“Why did you leave New Orleans 7 years ago anyway?”

(I can only imagine what the residence on Lincoln ave felt when they saw a solitary cyclist maudlin and weeping over his handle bars.)

“Because… It should have changed.”

I am convincing myself that moving back to Pittsburgh, staying in Pittsburgh then somehow, someway, somewhen– you’re suicide did not happen and if it did, I can reverse it.

It’s 5 minutes into the future and my truck bed is full of everything I own. It’s 30 seconds into the future and I am driving down Route 376 to catch a connecting road to take me to New Orleans again.

And In the French Quarter I see your face
in ever middle aged women in passing.
My face turns down, embarrassed, you
take a picture of me while blushing,
I tell you to “stop, put that thing away,
you look like a tourist, turn it off.”
In the backs of women shorter than my
slouched shoulders – I see you. Black hair,
curls, walking away from everywhere I am.
I want to grab them, embrace them all,
saying “stop, no, wait, let’s go home now,
there is the market we must stop at first.”
You wave a hand waving away my face
telling me “it’s just a picture, I want some
thing to remember you by, this town is
the oldest form of beauty, there is a gallery
I want to see, I’ll be back in a minute.”
At my desk I sit with cigarettes, myriad
cloves driven into an orange, Nag Champa,
like a scent mobile, a swamp in the air,
a typewriter, Abita beers, my cell phone.
At night it stays on, plugged in, waiting
for you to call saying, “I’m sorry, got lost,
which street do I turn from if I’m on
Chartres? Are you busy? I found this
wall, the hurricane must’ve damaged
it. I took pictures, it has a wonderful
scene in it. The rocks, displaced, are
children playing red rover. Or maybe
it’s a willow tree. No, now that I look
harder – these rocks, it’s two lovers
but the man is kissing himself, she’s
not really here. He’s pretending. Well,
I’ll back soon, I love you, don’t wait up,
make sure there is still some whiskey
left over so I don’t have to run to
the store at 4 am. Goodnight. I love you”
With the sun and hooves clopping upon
Decatur St. each morning my eyes adjust.
Sleep rubbed from the corners of my face.
2 more years blink with my open balcony shutters,
since your death, since we last spoke.
I keep wondering when you’ll be
back. Still and calming words. Telling me
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know how much you
needed me. I didn’t think this would hurt
you this bad. I just needed a break. This
was just a joke. Some paperwork got
mixed up. I’ve been on vacation. Can you
forgive me? How have you been? Are
you teaching yet? Are you in love?
Can I hear some of your most recent
poems? Do you still look away every time
someone makes you smile?”

John is now convincing I am convincing myself that there, really, is nothing more besides grief and mourning that I can approach this. John and Blake are convincing I am convincing myself that people exist in our minds and hearts. That we project who we believe who people are onto them, onto things they left behind, onto ourselves. You’re dead and no one can change that. It has been 7 years since this happened and I am now stepping slowly out of denial’s fire escape.

It is 2 years into the future and I sit on my flat garden roof at midnight on mother’s day. The anniversary of your death–mother’s day.

I couldn’t ever hate you, I couldn’t ever stop crying, I can’t ever stop mourning the loss of our future together.

The thing is– I do carry you within me, I carry your heartache, your bipolar, your depression, your suicidal ideation. But I carry something more; I carry what you left between the lines, what dad came to be. I carry your heartache in the pocket next to my notebook, I carry your bipolar, your depression, your, “danger nights,” next to my phone with Emily, Kitty, Blake, John and my father on speed dial. I carry your suicidal ideations on my back, like a mule, away from razors, away from drugs, away from guns, away from alcohol.

I carry my mourning into the evening tonight hearing you whisper that, “this year will be better than the last,” because– it always is. I am tumbling, like an echo, far away from the pain of feeling I could have saved you. I am mossless and tumbling away from–could have, should have. You are gone, you are missed, you are loved and you are right… I can get better at being me even if it means tackling our genes.

I love you more than the day I opened my arms, slap footed and screaming bloody on your chest. I love you more than every ocean visit we took.

Happy Mother’s Day…

PS. If you were here… You would know…