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Fear & the Brain

The Face of Fear

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The facial expression of fear is often the first sign of the emotion we notice in others.

How would you draw a scared face? Wide eyes, raised eyebrows and a mouth pulled back toward the ears are probably on your list. And for good reason. These are the characteristic features of a “fear face.”

Experts believe we mainly make this face and other emotional expressions to communicate what we’re feeling—sometimes to recruit the help of others, sometimes to warn them of danger.

Some emotions, such as fear, joy, sadness and anger, may be primary, making them easier to read. Others maybe more complex blends of several emotions. For example, experts who study facial expressions consider smugness to be a mix of contempt and enjoyment.

Some scientists believe the emotional faces we make are universal and that we’re born with the capacity to make them. Researchers, such as Dr. Paul Ekman of the University of California, San Francisco, have studied the meaning behind emotional faces in populations around the world. They’ve reported significant similarities across cultures. Still, some experts argue that we learn to make facial expressions by mimicking others.