Brain takes just 200 milliseconds to interpret facial expressions

May 26, 2009
Brain takes just 200 milliseconds to interpret facial expressions

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers at the University of Glasgow have discovered that it takes the brain just 200 milliseconds to gather most of the information it needs from a facial expression to determine a person’s emotional state.

The study, led by Prof Phillipe Schyns, Director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging within the Department of Psychology, showed that the brain starts by looking at the eyes then zooming out to process the whole face before zooming back in to examine specific diagnostic features - such as eyes open wide in fear, or a smiling mouth.

The researchers believe the results show that facial expressions and the ability to decipher them co-evolved in the brain.

Prof Schyns said: “Facial expressions and the interpretation of them are a fundamental part of human communication and our study has revealed how the brain uses facial details in order to make crucial social judgements.

“Our study suggests that facial expressions co-evolved with the brain - the former to be deciphered, the latter to decipher. With time-resolved brain data, we reveal both how the brain uses different expressive features and how long it takes to process enough information for the critical social judgements we take for granted.”

There are six basic facial expressions: happy, fear, surprise, disgust, anger and sadness. All of these expressions have distinctive characteristics that the brain can easily distinguish between.

Volunteers in the study were shown each expression on 10 different faces, five male, five female, while brain-imaging equipment monitored how quickly different parts of the brain interpreted them.

The results showed that between 140-200ms of the picture being shown, an information processing mechanism starts independently in both left and right brain hemispheres, looking first at the eyes, then the rest of the face before zooming back in on specific features associated with the basic emotions.

By the end of this process, the brain has enough information to accurately predict the emotional state of the person displaying the facial expression.

The paper: ‘Transmission of of emotion co-evolved with their efficient decoding in the brain: behavioural and evidence’ is published online at PLoS ONE.

Provided by University of Glasgow

Explore further: Lost memories might be able to be restored, new study indicates

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Body language more expressive than faces

Oct 24, 2005

Body language can shape first impressions of a person's emotional state, even when attention is focused on facial expression, Netherlands scientists said.

Reading a face is tricky business

Jul 31, 2007

Reading the face of a person who is trying to conceal fear or other emotions is tricky business, according to a new Northwestern University study of electrical activity in the brain.

A frown or a smile? Children with autism can't discern

May 05, 2007

When we have a conversation with someone, we not only hear what they say, we see what they say. Eyes can smolder or twinkle. Gazes can be direct or shifty. “Reading” these facial expressions gives context and meaning ...

Recommended for you

Researchers unlock mystery of skin's sensory abilities

10 hours ago

Humans' ability to detect the direction of movement of stimuli in their sensory world is critical to survival. Much of this stimuli detection comes from sight and sound, but little is known about how the ...

Tackling neurotransmission precision

Dec 18, 2014

Behind all motor, sensory and memory functions, calcium ions are in the brain, making those functions possible. Yet neuroscientists do not entirely understand how fast calcium ions reach their targets inside ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.