Category Archives: Paul Ekman

The Fuzzy Rabbit Hole of Depression Part 1.

Recently I’ve been thinking about, among other things, the evolutionary purpose of depression. What I mean is that, as far as I’m aware, all things be them in the cognitive, affective or psychomotor domain evolved for a reason; our eyes evolved face front to see ahead, our hands, prehensile, evolved to grab, fight, feed, our emotions evolved in brilliant ways concomitant with our bodies and minds.

In some cases in evolution we have, “phenotypic [characteristics that are  byproducts] of the evolution of some other characteristic, rather than a direct product of adaptive selection,” called spandrels. Sometimes a spandrel is very useful; sometimes a spandrel is useless; sometimes a spandrel is harmful.

Paul Ekman, in his book, “Emotional Awareness,” poses the idea of the mood being a harmful spandrel and I don’t disagree with him. To paraphrase he suggests that when we are in a mood we are biologically inclined to seek out that which reinforces the mood we are in (different from the refractory period of an emotion we are feeling where Ekman states that we are biologically incapable of accepting information that is contrary to the emotion we are feeling) and this is dangerous and harmful. Moreover he expounds on its danger stating that, for example, being in a frightened mood we are less likely to accept stimuli that will not harm us and, consequentially, we are likely to project fear onto it fallaciously.

I had, upon my first moments of this idea, felt that depression may just be an evolutionary spandrel; an accidental byproduct of our ability to feel and was harmful and useless.

However, when discussing the theory of depression’s evolutionary purpose with some friends produced 22 2-6 page emails my mind was changed. Later, a few of the internet searches produced some good fruit on the subject that also convinced me otherwise. Scientific American had an article on the subject posing the idea that depression does have a purpose and like the, “vertebrate eye – [it is] an intricate, highly organized piece of machinery that performs a specific function.” The function they posed was that depression allowed the person to have a higher analytical focus that provided them the ability to drown out external distraction; insomnia gets rid of sleep so as to stay conscious and ruminate, loss of appetite excludes digestion’s requirement for energy, solitude excludes the distraction of people etc.

Wikipedia too, I found, had an exhaustive list of evolutionary theory regarding depression.

It was, though, in those emails between friends that a larger and greater understanding arose.

Before I was to find the evolutionary purpose behind depression I first must find a succinct and apt definition of depression. It was in a friend’ email response that this definition arose. The email is here, posted in full… As an experienced practitioner of depression, I felt that it was by far the most outstanding explanation of depression I’ve ever read.

(The follow up posts to this one will include a theory of depression and how it relates to Csikszentmihalyi‘s idea of the psychology of flow and how manic depression may, too, fall within the lines of flow psychology. I am posting only this now to allow for some, so to speak, depressive rumination on the subject. The references that are mentioned in the email are hyperlinked…)

“I considered the blog both accurate and adequate expression; because of its familiarity I was able to relate my own host of inner experiences to the examples offered thus, not requiring the blogger to be discursive. The blog is not an explanation of depression, but it is an explication to those already in the know.

You will not understand ‘depression’ approaching it as a thing. Depression is a person and, as such, is as many dissertations as there are disciples experiencing it.  You can not divorce the experience from the spiritual entity that ‘is’ depression as it is happening, anymore than you can hope to define any processes of a soul.  As any reality, depression will be unique to everyone, while there will be enough overlapping of that reality for one depressive to reciprocate the experience of another, without having to ‘know’ it, clinically parsed-out and fissiperated.

–How about depression with a reason?

Depression with a cause or reason I would term ‘grief.’  Even the general state of the world or the vagary ‘life/existence’ can be sited as incitement for this state of grief. But a depressive can not site a specific cause, which would make the dilemma accessible and a soluble matter.  The depressive does not have this access to resolution. It could be described as an imbalanced chemical state–the depressive doesn’t know, can’t tell you, and will credulously try any pill, and another, anything just to see. Because anything would be better than the incapacitating apathy.

–Are you saying depression without reason is “non-functioning”?

Depression is compromised functioning.  You can’t find the motivation to ‘do’ because you can’t ‘care’ and you don’t know how to care to do or how you ever cared, or when or if you ever can or should care again.

Now, this might enable that highly focused state described in the S.A. article, but I consider that the residual effect of one’s inability to engage with the concerns of the world at large.  Your narrowed focus is the subsistance cognition of a person who has lost connection to the pursuits of others that do illustrate a caring interest in engagements which the depressive either no longer comprehends or respects or wishes any association to personally. What makes such a depression non-suicidal is one’s ability to summon some belief in a someday change.  It’s a dark ember that’s the distinguishing line.

A whimpered ‘why’ becomes the engrossing, all-encompassing insurmountable question.

From the vantage point of being within the experience you can not identify a ‘function’ of/for it. Within the moment, it is entirely self-defeating and livelihood threatening.  If you can still manage to care about yourself and how you are seen by others you will manage at the last and latest possible moment to salvage your circumstances to the extent of going out and earning that money that will provide for your ability to maintain the baseline of couchsitting-afterwork-oblivion. Maybe the depression will let go, but you can not shake it off, because it is you.

–Maybe this particular problem was really bothering her in ways she wasn’t aware of.

A quote from the book of [a friend]: “I didn’t know I was depressed until I wasn’t.”

Another notion: it’s loss of that inertia that keeps us going even when we don’t care for little fits of time.  it’s, socially and privately, falling so far behind you have only the suffering to look forward to of every second spent trying to catch up, and why it takes so long to ‘try’ again, if ever. Ever had dreams in which you’ve fallen so far behind at something you are loath to engage in the effort, because it just seems so futile?

A whimpered “what’s the point” becomes the engrossing, all-encompassing answer of the depressive aware of no relation to a world that has no relation to you, that evinces such sparse integrity of purpose or cause for respect, or reason for you to desire to participate ever again.

The ‘non-suicidal’ depressive abides, the ‘suicidal’ kills something in everyone around them.”


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, “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 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.

Attempting to quell the un-quellable… And the guts behind it…


I need advice. I don’t want to give myself away through my microexpressions. And I have several. More than most. How do I be more… stoic? Similar to [our stoic friend]? I’ve [learned to control my emotions, I stay away from drugs], I’ve done all of that except tried logic. Do you know of any books on [our friend’s] shelf, or should I library? And honestly, I think there is something wrong with me on a professional level only, I can get emotional about work, and it’s been hard to hide lately. It’s causing slight stress but more of a disturbance in my flow, and my effectiveness.

– [Left to be unnamed.]

I have neither attempted to, nor come across a means to, or desire to, stifle microexpressions. As far as I’ve always understood; a microexpression occurs on account of having to attempt to conceal an emotion in the first place. In other words, a microexpression is a form of a “tell,” as they call them in the poker world. They, microexpressions, occur because the personality, perhaps the id, requires truthful information to be conveyed. If I were to, say, lie about something and I was a person that was apt to convey microexpressions; then a microexpression (a full blown facial expression) would flash upon my face in, approximately, 1/10 of a second.

(And the timing is no guess. When I decided to study microexpressions, I asked friends to lie to me while I filmed them. One friend specifically was, as I knew, disgusted by, and abhorred, cigarettes. I asked her to convince me, on film, that she loved them. When I’d spot a microexpression I would cut that single second out and put it into my computer. The second of footage was able to be broken down into 30 frames. A microexpression of theirs lasted for 3 out of the 30 frames. 1 frame was the initial onset, the 2nd frame was a full blown expression, the 3rd frame was the offset of the emotion. 3/30 frames, in other words; 1/10 of a second. And the expression was full on disgust. To be technical it had a Facial Action Coding Score (FACS) with the Action Units (AUs), 9 (the levator labii superioris alaeque nasi), 15 (the depressor anguli oris) and 16 (the depressor labii inferioris) Amazing! Full blown disgust in one 10th of a second! It’s staggering. Back to the point… I agree…)

I’ve been spending a few days now trying to think of a way to conceal something that manifests as a result of concealment and what I have come up with is that, simply, you don’t.

On the one hand, the more prominent one in this metaphor, there are, theoretically, one is my theoretical and the other is, so to speak, Ekmanomical… Paul Ekman, the one who is widely credited as discovering and working with microexpressions (though technically it was E.A. Haggard and K.S. Isaacs in 1996 who called it “Micromomentary.“) has developed a training tool to learn how to spot microexpressions. (I have taken all of the courses and each are worth it.)

The point is, if it is something that people need to practice at or take a training on; the chances of someone who is of the, for lack of better terms, average individual having taken such a course is, likely, pretty minimal and they will miss them (microexpressions) when they occur.

Remember, we’re talking about 1/10 of a second here!

On the next hand we have those pesky little buggers called mirror neurons. And these are a problem, why? In this case they are anyway… Mirror neurons are what promote and manifest empathy. When I yawn, you yawn– mirror neuron. When you frown, I grow saddened– mirror neuron. When you show anger, I become afraid– mirror neuron. And they exist for a beautiful evolutionary reason. Mirror neurons are where empathy comes from, how we can feel sympathy. So, if a person exhibits a mircroexpression then it is quite reasonable to expect that, since the brain notices more information than we can possibly imagine, the person who sees a microexpression will have a mirror neuron effect from the cause of you making such a grumpy face.

It’s a pickle. No doubt.

(Not to mention the growing probability that thoughts and feelings may be less private than we think or that we are cluttering the noosphere with all the muck and entrails of what we think and feel. Enough hippy side tracking… Back on point…)

Now that we have a bit of an understanding as to what and why a microexpression is… Let’s consider their control. It is reasonable to suggest that you will have to, instead, learn to control your emotions and not your microexpressions at all. Honesty is, as I always say, the best route. Once a friend said to me, “lying–it is something that you can do to all people or no people; your choice.” And, quite frankly, I agree.

Now, sadly, if you attempt to conceal microexpressions there is, then, a good possibility that you will be given away based on three principles–

  1. A Simulated Expression is when a microexpression is not concomitant with a natural expression which will lend suspicion to your conversationalist pal.
  2. A Neutralized Expression occurs when the one emoting attempts to neutralize an emotion (quite like you are doing) and, consequentially, no emotions, where one should, appears causing a non-microexpression-microexpression…
  3. Masked Expression is when the microexpression truly rears its head; that is when you attempt to mask a natural expression then another expression can, and most likely will, give you away.

In other words; you will most likely be fully incapable of repressing your microexpressions and if you do/try you will only lead to more. Not to mention the amount of damage it will do on your psyche. On the path where you are heading I would beg to ask the question, “if you would not do this job for free, then why are you doing it?” Instead is it time to change professions?

If, however, this is a necessary job for the time being I would work on practicing keeping your “cultural emblems, subject manipulators and object manipulators,” at a minimum. These are things that really do cause an affective effect in the person who views them. And these are things that people don’t even need to study in order to spot…

Pesky mirror-neurons…

I hope that answers your question and I hope that I can convince you to watch a video before you leave. The video is a lecture by a woman named Brene’ Brown. She talks about allowing yourself to be vulnerable to your emotions and compassionate towards yourself to a point where things like you are trying to do–are no longer relevant. She explains a simple method to trusting yourself and others with whatever emotion is given or received… And furthermore she talks about the power one receives by becoming, of all things, as vulnerable as one possibly can become.

I hope this helps…

If not, you can always hit up a Byron Katie, “Judge Your Neighbor Worksheet.”