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How Eyes Can Express Emotion

As the saying goes, eyes are known as the windows to the soul. They can express numerous different emotions and serve as an immediate form of communication. People around us can interpret how we are feeling based on multiple factors, one of them mainly being the expression within our eyes.

According to a recent study conducted by Adam Anderson, professor of human development at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, this process began as a universal reaction to environmental stimuli and evolved to communicate our deepest emotions over time.

For example, participants in the study often associated narrowed eyes with emotions related to discrimination such as distrust and suspicion. This is due to this reaction sharpening our focus and blocking out lots of light. On the contrary, people linked very wide and opened eyes to emotions related to sensitivity like awe and even fear.

"When looking at the face, the eyes dominate emotional communication," Anderson said. "The eyes are windows to the soul likely because they are first conduits for sight. Emotional expressive changes around the eye influence how we see, and in turn, this communicates to others how we think and feel."

His research supports Charles Darwin's theories on the evolution of emotion, which stated that our expressions originated for sensory function rather than social communication.

"What our work is beginning to unravel," said Anderson, "are the details of what Darwin theorized: why certain expressions look the way they do, how that helps the person perceive the world, and how others use those expressions to read our innermost emotions and intentions."

Anderson created models of six expressions during this study — sadness, disgust, anger, joy, fear and surprise -— using photos of faces from several databases. The participants were shown a pair of eyes demonstrating one of the six expressions and one of 50 words describing a specific mental state. They then proceeded to rate the extent to which the word described the eye expression. Each participant completed 600 trials total.

A common theme became quite clear; participants consistently matched the eye expressions with the corresponding emotion, thus accurately discerning all six basic emotions from the eyes alone. Anderson then analyzed how these perceptions of emotions related to specific eye features, mainly the openness of the eye, the distance from the eyebrow to the eye, the slope and curve of the eyebrow, and wrinkles around the nose, the temple, and below the eye.

Need to schedule an upcoming eye exam? Call Rochester Eye Associates at 585-244-0332 today.

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