Saturday, October 6, 2007

Neutral Faces

Ever wonder what your neutral face looks like? You’ll never see it firsthand, of course, because the moment you try to catch it in a mirror it disappears. Even to capture it in a photograph would be a feat, since our brains, reacting to the presence of the camera, make minute, unconscious changes to our expression. We’ve all got our own individual neutral faces, each nearly as distinctive as our fingerprint. They run the gamut from blissful to bored to angry, and just about every feeling in between. A neutral face is our default expression, the one thatwe wear most often. It’s often the expression that appears when we’re lost in thought, or, more generally, when we are not interacting with something that is stimulating an emotion.

Scientists have attempted to pin down the characteristics of a truly “neutral” face, with varying degrees of success. It seems the judgment of emotion is nearly entirely subjective, since our brains automatically try to assign emotion to a facial expression. The Kuleshov effect, for instance, shows that context plays a large part in assessing the emotional value of an expression. Audiences, when shown an image of an upsetting scene followed in quick succession by a face that is as objectively neutral as possible, imagine emotional distress in the latter picture. Each of us evaluates the emotions of those around us differently; some people, schizophrenics in particular, struggle to identify even basic facial emotions.

A neutral face, like any facial expression, is composed primarily of the eyes and mouth. Some eyes look cold and mean, some warm and inviting. Some of us are born with a bit of a natural smile, while others are unfortunate enough to have an innate sneer. This makes neutral faces quite dangerous, since they are so easy to misinterpret. People with perpetually downcast-looking faces, for example, probably tire of others asking if something is wrong. Nevertheless, it is possible to train oneself to project an “unnatural” neutral face. Some men may use a permanent growl to try to establish an aura of intimidation, while some women are able to radiate sweetness simply by manipulating their face’s ordinary state. In doing so, they are able to, in effect, change their personality, since facial appearance is often the first (though perhaps not the most reliable) indicator of a stranger’s character.

Some character actors make a living off their neutral faces, since the audience so readily accepts them in certain roles due to their perceived persona, as established by their natural facial expression. Paul Giamatti is one who is known for his likeable, Everyman expression—a sort of glum but friendly mien, weary but welcoming. Jack Nicholson is often typecast as an eccentric, mostly because of his perpetually crazed, slightly demonic demeanor (these synonyms for facial expression may seem forced, but I just can’t bring myself to use the same term again and again). Often an actor’s neutral face can work against him, as in the 2006 film Unknown, in which Greg Kinnear is unable to convincingly pull off the role of the tough thug because of his enduring, endearing neutral face.

Facial expression is extremely important in courtship, with both women and men favoring “kind” faces. I am attracted to a particular neutral face: one that is soulful, almost sad-looking, which indicates to me (accurately or not) that the girl has experienced some of the sorrows of the world. This type of expression verifies the reality and humanity of the person behind it. The most gratifying feeling in the world is seeing such an expression turn into a smile, for it seems the greater the disparity between the neutral face and the cheerful face, the more the effect of the ultimate emotion is magnified.

It’s best to be aware of the face we are presenting to the world; an unbecoming neutral face can mean the difference between getting a job or not, hitting it off with the cute guy/girl across the room or getting the cold shoulder. So think neutral and be positive.

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