More Ekman: from facial expression to emotion

Paul Ekman’s account of his decision to go to New Guinea is related in his book, Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication.

Ekman and Wally Friesen were working, at that time - in the late sixties - on the initial conceptualizing of a research project that could pick out universal emotions. To do this, Ekman decided he needed evidence of the passional life of some culture remote from Western society. He knew Carleton Gajdusek, “a neurologist who had been working for more than a decade in such isolated places in the highlands of Papua New Guinea...” And he knew Gajdusek had taken film of the Fore group. Gajdusek was working on kuru – a disease that literally creates holes in the brain. Gajdusek's work was crucial to the discovery of the prion, and he won a Nobel Prize for it after the same kind of disease - Mad Cow disease - turned up in the West.

“The films [the one hundred thousand feet of motion picture film shot by Gjdusek among New Guinea’s Stone age cultures – who, he realized, “would soon disappear” ] contained two very convincing proofs of the universality of facial expressions of emotion. First, we never saw an unfamiliar expression. If facial expressions are completely learned, then these isolated people should have shown novel expressions, ones we had never seen before. There were none.

It was still possible that these familiar expressions might be signals of very different emotions. But while the films didn’t always reveal what happened before or after an expression, when they did, they confirmed our interpretations. If expressions signal different emotions in each culture, then total outsiders, with no familiarity with the culture, should not have been able to interpret the expressions correctly.”

Ekman thus recognizes that there is a two fold task before him. However, at the very beginning of this project, we already see an omission in the way the research is constructed that hints at a system of omissions. We begin not, as in a psychological experiment of the classical type, with the person on whose face the emotion is imprinted. That person is not only absent, but their own self reports are not even under consideration. The first person aspect of emotion is, as it were, cut off in the same way that the face is cropped from the film, and the film crops the practices of everyday life. The images, cropped and then re-cropped, circulate not as commodities, but rather figure as curiosa - exotic objects that become the objects they are once they have entered into the domain of science. Thus, we begin this research on the universality of emotions by excluding the question of the feeling, the interpretation, of the person whose face is expressing the emotion. The question becomes: can I take the look on the face of this native as an objective cue that the native was experiencing this or that emotion. Having cut away the first person, who is at best the uncertain standard by whose testimony the classical psychological test goes forward, the two researchers then set themselves the task of translating the language of facial emotion as they see it in the film. The language of the face is already more than a metaphor, here. But it is a strange kind of non-verbal language, insofar as it is seems to precede the understanding of the "speaker" - the person across whose face expressions play. Yet, there is a deeper level of assumption here, which is that the viewers have the background knowledge simply to read this language. That such is their own self-positioning vis a vis the faces presented before them in the film seems to already presuppose that universality which they seek.

So: this research project has a twist. If Ekman and Friesen can read these cues successfully, they will prove that they are universal. And, as universal, that they are natural, innate, a language that the speaker can't help but speak. It is the helplessness of the speaker that allows us to omit the testimony of the person who is making the face. The facial expressions are not only almost a language, they are more than a language, they are a language in which intention is overriden. This isn't an exaggeration, but a precise description of the methodological assumptions followed by the two researchers.

Yet still, having made the necessary assumptions, how do the two researchers confirm their reading of the faces?

At this point, another move is made, and another omission emerges. One of the major issues in emotional ethnology is the evidence of the language on the ground – the vocabulary of emotions, and how they translate, or don’t, into English. By vocabulary, we are not simply speaking of a listing of words, but also of the affective schemas that organize the pathic words. Karl Heider uses the example of ‘love’ in English, which, he claims, is close to “happiness”, whereas the Indonesian ‘cinta’, which could be translated as love, is close to “sadness”. But it isn’t only location on the cognitive map – there is also the question of objectification. It is perfectly possible, in English, to say such things as: my life is happy. This utterance does not mean that my life has been a series of continuously happy feelings. it doesn't even imply that the speaker is is happy at the instance of the utterance. Rather, it assumes that there is an affective tone about a life, or about a long period of time, which makes sense in the affective vocabulary. That affective tone statement is distinct from the report of actual feeling, such as: I’m so happy. Thus, in English, the affective vocabulary can describe an actual mood, - it can describe an appraisal about how one ought to feel – and it can even, thus objectified, be detached from particular feelings to give a sense of a feeling tone over a long period of time. Why should we expect to find these particular conceptual practices in another culture? Or, perhaps more pertinently, how would we discover that this schema, or something different, is in operation? This is the kind of move one would especially expect in the sixties, the era of the linguistic turn. Yet instead of addressing the question of the native language that subtends the natural language of the face, Ekman avoids it. Instead, his next move is very peculiar:

It was still possible that these familiar expressions might be signals of very different emotions. But while the films didn’t always reveal what happened before or after an expression, when they did, they confirmed our interpretations. If expressions signal different emotions in each culture, then total outsiders, with no familiarity with the culture, should not have been able to interpret the expressions correctly.

I tried to think how Birdwhistell and Mead would dispute this claim. I imagined they would say, “It doesn’t matter that there aren’t any new expressions; the ones you did see really had different meanins. You got them right because you were tipped off by the social context in which they occurred. You never saw an expression removed from what was happening before, afterward, or at the same time. If you had, you wouldn’t have known what the expressions meant. To close this loophole, we brought Silvan from the East Coast to spend a week at my lab.

Before he came we edited the films so he could see only the expression itself, removed from its social context, just close up shots of a face. Silvan had no trouble at all. Every one of his interpretations fit the social context he hadn’t seen. What’s more, he knew exactly how he got the information. Wally and I could sense what emotional message was conveyed by each expression, but our judgments were intuitively based; we could usually not specify exactly what in the face carried the message unless it was a smile. Silvan walked up to the movie screen and pointed out exactly which specific muscular movements signaled the emotion.

We also asked him for his overall impression of these two cultures. One group he said seemed quite friendly. The other was explosive in their anger, highly suspicious if not paranoid in character, and homosexual. It was the Anga that he was describing. His account fit what we had been told by Gajdusek, who had worked with them. They had repeatedly attacked Australian officials who tried to maintain a government station there. They were known by their neighbors for their fierce suspiciousness . And the men led homosexual lives until the time of marriage.”

As I said, this is a peculiar move. Think of it. We have a film of facial expression. Assuming facial expression is universal, one could grant two observers, who have no contact with Fore culture, may correctly read the face. But notice how this is confirmed - by social cues. In other words, by scenes of Fore social life with which, admittedly, the two observers are not familiar. Thus, the confirmation of their facial readings is validated by the lesser certainties of their readings of the social context.

So, one wonders, what about that context?

Which brings us to the first tertiary person in this project: Gajdusek. When Ekman and Friesen talk about a "disappearing" people, the term, as they use it, seems to be projected onto Gajdusek. This is the reason he made his films. Now, of course, the notion that a people disappear, like magicians assistants or fairies, instead of being disappeared, like people who are slaughtered, have their land stolen, are cajoled by missionaries and sellers of alcohol, are force to assume habits and ways of living they don't want to, watch their children being kidnapped for education elsewhere, etc - is a not so fine piece of colonialist hypocrisy, very reminiscent of the old sixties days in Vietnam. My own assumption about what Gajdusek assumed, and what he told Ekman and Friesen, would have been that it was Gajdusek who told the researchers that the people were going to 'disappear' - but this assumption changed as I learned more about Gajdusek. The man not only won a Nobel prize, but he spent a year in jail for pederasty - being investigated originally for accounts that were published in professional journals of his diaries of the years among the Anga. Here’s the Guardian account of the case, from 1996. It is a couple of pages long. Sorry. But a long quote is necessary.

“A Nobel prizewinner is studying a faraway tribe. He describes how boys routinely and willingly have sex with their elders. He shares a bed with the children, then takes some home with him to continue his research. When he wins the Nobel, there they are, on the stage next to him. Has he committed a crime? QBY:Peter Martin
On 4 April last year, as Dr Daniel Gajdusek was flying back from a conference on BSE in Geneva, FBI agents were raiding both his office and his home in Maryland, USA. They took away files, disks, photographs, film, and notebooks. That same evening, when he drew into his driveway with a doctor colleague, a dozen FBI agents leapt from cover and arrested 72-year-old Gajdusek at gunpoint. Charged with paedophilia specifically, two counts of sexual assault on teenage minors, plus two counts of violating a Maryland law prohibiting oral sex then as now, he protests his innocence. He told the Washington Post that he was as much a paedophile `as Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa, who are also unmarried and love children'.
Scheduled to begin at 9am on Tuesday at the County Court House, Frederick City, Maryland, the trial is a considerable cause celebre for the FBI. Alleged paedophile cases are notoriously hard to prosecute and even harder to win, let alone get right. Remember Cleveland and Orkney? In America, too, most cases brought are either lost or abandoned. The McMartin `satanic abuse' debacle is still the US benchmark: ending in acquittals all round in l989, the case had taken five years and $15m to prepare and, at two and a half years, remains the longest trial in American history. Spearheaded by the FBI, the favoured strategy now is to go after individuals, and targets don't come much more high profile than Gajdusek: head of the Laboratory of Central Nervous System Studies at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Bethesda, Maryland, and a Nobel prizewinner besides.
His closest colleagues, including the eminent Aids researcher, Robert Gallo, who stumped up part of his $350,000 bail, insist that Gajdusek is merely the latest victim of America's raging preoccupation with child abuse. Maryland state's attorney Scott Rolle, who'll be prosecuting come Tuesday, said he's not surprised at the denials and the disbelief. `It's a common reaction to paedophile charges. But most paedophiles aren't seedy-looking men in trench coats. If it's a disease, it can afflict anybody doctors, lawyers, even Nobel prize laureates.' Whatever the trial's outcome, Gajdusek has longed admitted to a love of children in particular, children from the Stone Age tribes of New Guinea and Micronesia where, back in the Fifties, he started his ground-breaking researches into rare diseases, including kuru, a variant of CJD. Since then, figuring he owed a debt to the communities he worked in, he has `adopted' no fewer than 56 such children, most-ly boys, and paid for their education in America. Typically, when he collected his Nobel prize, he took eight of `his' children on to the rostrum with him, and promised to use the $80,000 prize to send them to college. But that was 1976, a more liberal and, in some ways, a more naive time, and nobody thought much about it.
The sequence of events which led to Gajdusek's arrest last year tells a good deal about how the times and temper have changed. Because of his importance as a scientist, the NIH had been publishing his working journals at intervals since the mid-Sixties. Full of wild and woolly fieldwork surgery carried out in primitive up-country conditions, treatments, epidemiology, trading beads and salt (often with dedicated cannibals) for native corpses in order to carry out postmortems they're quite a ripping read. The journals also contain a number of passages describing the traditional homosexual practices of several of the tribes Gajdusek worked and lived with. According to the NIH, much of this material had been in the public domain for 30 years. But it wasn't until l995 that an outraged citizen alerted a member of a senate committee who, in turn, suggested that the FBI check out the journals as possible evidence of a paedophile tendency in their author.
Several entries concern tribes in New Guinea whose young boys achieved manhood through oral sex with older village men. Local belief has it that while females are born `complete', boys cannot grow to proper manliness without ingesting semen. Although Gajdusek is not the only scientist to have described such customs, the FBI was made suspicious by the undetached candour of his writings.
4 August, 1962: `The young boys do not hesitate, as a mark of affection, to indicate that they would like to suck one's penis, and in private they expect that this favour will be instantly accepted as a sign of their friendship... There is obviously a good deal of jesting and shaming associated with this sexuality when it is not carried out `just right'. Modesty and shame are evident in any public reference to it. What is `just right' involves knowledge of the `style' of the relationships.' 27 December, 1969: `Ekoro, Yewei, Mbondo, Awamu and Sengo and [blank space] slept with me last night and I find the children as gentle and kind and playful as at the start of my sojourn. I love them.' 9 November, 1971: `Whenever I respond to the overtures of one of the young boys by letting them cling to me, by hugging them or walking with them hand in hand, their adult relatives, often their fathers, knowingly smile and without ambiguity indicate that I should let the boys play sexually with me, and the suggestion is only made slightly more seriously and with but a bit more levity than would accompany a suggestion that one accept a gift of food.' For all the physical and emotional intimacy they express, the journals contain no evidence or description of Gajdusek engaging in sexual activity. So, next, the FBI set out to interview his adoptees, past and present. Although some were far flung, the FBI tracked down over 20 individuals and asked each of them: had Gajdusek ever done anything to them of a sexual nature? Most were reportedly horrified at the suggestion, but one man a 23-year-old Gajdusek was still putting through college in Maryland said yes: as a teenager, he'd suffered numerous assaults by his guardian. Through this witness, the FBI then located a 14-year-old who has made similar charges.
And then there's the tape. Prosecutor Scott Rolle says he's also in possession of a recorded phone conversation, taped by the FBI last March, between the 23-year-old student and Gajdusek. On it, he alleges, Gajdusek admits to the assaults on both boys, apologises, and begs him not to tell. At one point, Rolle says, the student asked, `Do you know what a paedophile is?' To which Gadjusek is alleged to have replied, `I am one'.
Nor is that all. Back in 1989, police in nearby Montgomery County investigated allegations of sexual abuse by Gajdusek made by two local youths, not adoptees. According to the police: `The investigation was suspended because we were unable to uncover any current victims.' On Tuesday, it is unlikely that the jurors of Frederick County will know what to make of Daniel Carleton Gajdusek. The eccentric's eccentric, the odds of him finding a collar, tie and matching shoes to turn up in are not good. Sir Frank MacFarlane Burnet an early mentor and a Nobel prizewinner himself once described his `exasperated fondness' for the young Gajdusek, adding that he had `an intelligence quotient in the 180s and the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old'.
Born in 1923 to poor first-generation immigrants from Slovakia, who'd settled in Yonkers, New York, the boy Daniel was precocious in the extreme. A keen entomologist while still in short trousers, he collected bugs of every sort and, to kill them, he synthesised a poison which later became the basis of a weedkiller patent. At his high school graduation, he was summoned to the stage 10 times to collect scholarships. `By the tenth one,' as his younger brother Robert recalled, `the audience was on its feet for a standing ovation.' Next, he took a biophysics degree at the University of Rochester, then finished Harvard Medical School in three years instead of four with a degree in pediatrics. Restless still, he moved to the California Institute of Technology, under the tutelage of Professor Linus `Vitamin C' Pauling, who would later win a brace of Nobels. Finally hooked by a passion for virology, Gajdusek then went in search of rare diseases and plagues in Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey: a bootstrap and backpack explorer-scientist out of the nineteenth century. In Australia, he worked for Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet, who wrote of him: `He apparently has no interest in women but an almost obsessional interest in children, none whatever in clothes or cleanliness; and he can live cheerfully in a slum or a grass hut.' But Gajdusek's career proper started in 1957, when he first fetched up in New Guinea. There, the local Australian medical officer, Vincent Zigas, told him of a strange, invariably fatal disease, called kuru, that was common among the tribes of the island's interior. As Zigas later wrote of Gajdusek's keenness to know more: `I was machine-gunned by his numerous questions. I had barely answered one when another would be asked.' Zigas showed him a few victims some with the shakes and a stumbling gait (ataxia), others in paralysis and nearer to death. To Gajdusek, it seemed to be a degenerative brain disease like CJD; but whereas CJD mostly struck the over-fifties, kuru could affect children as young as 13.
Machetes in hand, Gajdusek, Zigas and a few helpers set off for the interior, where they eventually located the Fore tribe. At first making no connection between the fact of their being cannibals and the high incidence of kuru among them, Gajdusek set about trying to treat and to investigate the disease there and then. A team of Australian scientists who'd planned to study kuru were elbowed out of the way, and within 10 months of clapping eyes on his first kuru case, Gajdusek announced the discovery of this hitherto unknown disease in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In the way of these things, a British scientist, William Hadlow, then suggested that kuru was very similar to sheep scrapie, which at that time was thought to be a viral disease. In turn, picking up on the idea that kuru might be viral, too, Gajdusek set about determining how it might be transmissible. Then it struck him: cannibalism: people eating kuru-infected corpses. It certainly fitted the local pattern: kuru mostly afflicted young women and children, and whenever the Fore set about ritually devouring a body, the brain the most infective part was usually left to the women and children. Proof of kuru's transmittability came when Gajdusek successfully infected some lab chimps with brain material taken from kuru victims. What won him the Nobel prize, however, was his conceptual leap about what he called `slow-acting' viruses, which anticipated Aids, and his work on brain degeneration, which radicalised the scientific approach to the likes of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's. Since then, a whole other series of connections has opened up: linking scrapie-infected cattle feed, BSE and `new strain' CJD, which typically strikes young people. Another ghastly symmetry is that kuru, BSE and `new strain' CJD are just about identical short incubation, ataxic shakes and staggering, eventual loss of limb function, same area of the brain attacked. Which is not how Messrs Dorrell and Hogg have ever chosen to put it.
True, Gajdusek's assertion that spongiform diseases are viral has lately been overtaken by a new orthodoxy that the culprits are rogue proteins, called prions. But the matter remains moot: neither school has yet managed to isolate the actual disease agent. It turns out, too, that the Fore probably didn't get kuru simply by eating diseased brain. The thinking now, as for BSE, is that you need a blood-route lesion for the agent to get in: an ulcer, a cut, or open gums as when children loose their milk teeth. Back in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food consulted Gajdusek a few times about BSE and CJD but, as its actions before and since have demonstrated, Maff needed the connection to be impossible.
But let's rewind to the early Sixties, and Gajdusek's growing sense of debt towards the communities he was working with; that's in the journals, too. Prior to his arrival, the Fore believed that kuru was a consequence of sorcery, as practised by the hostile tribes that surrounded them, but Gajdusek convinced them that kuru was a disease. And since he cured other ailments dysentry, yaws and so on the Fore came to believe that he might cure kuru, too.
But he felt obliged to disabuse them a delicate thing to attempt, given the Fore's precipitate sense of betrayal and quickness to murderous violence. He also told them that the only hope of a cure was if they would allow him to continue to study them, including cutting up their corpses. The Fore agreed. They also apologised for their frequent angers with him, explaining that it was the kuru their dread of it, that they were dying, and that their village was getting smaller as the jungle reclaimed it which made them behave so badly. Gajdusek began `adopting' children from his research communities around 1963, bringing them to America, and paying for their education. Some were orphans, but most came with their parents' permission. Today, many are lawyers and civil servants in America and elsewhere, and a good number are pursuing successful careers back in their native countries. A few subsequently sent their own children, or their nieces and nephews, into Gajdusek's charge. According to neighbours, Gajdusek's was a rambunctious household, the kids often running quite wild when he was away on field trips. But it was also a stimulating household, with Linus Pauling and the anthropologist Margaret Mead among the regular visitors.
At the the time of Gajdusek's arrest, four children were living in his Maryland home, three boys and a girl, now all taken into state care. His journals suggest that Gajdusek has long been torn between America and his life on the tribal islands. `To be part of this is rewarding,' he once wrote. `To escape it and come back to it in small but intense doses is like cheating, and I know that, on both sides of my life, I can be accused of fraud and unfair involvement.' This neither-one-nor-the-other sense of undeservingness, coupled with a sexual ambiguity, is shot through his writings, as in this 1961 journal entry, made at the end of an arduous field trip on Falalap Island in the Ulithi Atoll: `The children trusted me without much hesitation, gave themselves to me, and many individuals gave me a personal share in their lives, their passions, their sensuality, their aspirations, which I but little deserved and for which I tried to give all of myself in gratitude.' From Tuesday, it will be for the jury to decide on Gajdusek's guilt or innocence, based on the testimony of two witnesses and the FBI's tape recording. As for content of his journals, who could say for sure? For the defence, attorney Mark Hulkower insists: `The journals add nothing to the case. They're reports of what Dr Gajdusek observed in foreign cultures, and contain no evidence of inappropriate behaviour on his part.' Prosecutor Scott Rolle insists that they're `nothing but the musings of a potential paedophile. It was something that he was obviously flirting with.' Back on 4 April last year, as Gajdusek was taken into jail, reporters asked him point blank if he was a paedophile. He replied, `No. Not in the way that you are using the term, so I say no.'

Hmm. One wonders what to make of the juxtaposition between Ekman’s original claim – “You got them right because you were tipped off by the social context in which they occurred” – and Gajdusek’s journal entry - `Whenever I respond to the overtures of one of the young boys by letting them cling to me, by hugging them or walking with them hand in hand, their adult relatives, often their fathers, knowingly smile and without ambiguity indicate that I should let the boys play sexually with me..” Was this one of those social contexts he guessed, from the film?

I don’t think so. I think Ekman’s notion that the social cueing he saw in the film was enough for him to infer the meaning of the facial expressions, and from those facial expressions accurately describe a phenomenon that is a compound of feeling and appraisal, the latter of which is couched in the language and the conceptual schemas of the Anga, seems methodologically unlikely.

I’m not, of course, finished Ekman piece, yet.


JCD said…
If expressions signal different emotions in each culture, then total outsiders, with no familiarity with the culture, should not have been able to interpret the expressions correctly...

I think Ekman’s notion that the social cueing he saw in the film was enough for him to infer the meaning of the facial expressions, and from those facial expressions accurately describe a phenomenon that is a compound of feeling and appraisal, the latter of which is couched in the language and the conceptual schemas of the Anga, seems methodologically unlikely.

So Ekman failed his own criterion. Pity that. Scientifical idealized abstraction: fails again. Drat.
northanger said…
i like that image, you might like this
Anonymous said…
this is completely off topic, but i saw this:

and thought of you
Ray Davis said…
I find myself a bit fuzzy on that "angry suspicious homosexual" business. Of course I've heard things like "Who brought the fish?" but that's not a facial expression, is it? Was Ekman claiming Paul Lynde as a cultural universal?