Emotions and Secrets – Paul Ekman – Interview

Emotions and Secrets - Paul Ekman - Interview

Emotions and Secrets

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Emotion and Secrets – Read the Italian Version


GP You got started to psychology reading Freud, which you initially studied in a course on rhetoric. I know you appreciated very much his writing style, but what about his theories? Did they convince you since the beginning?

PE No they did not. Of course some of his ideas are so fundamental that no one can study human beings without subscribing to them: many of our most important actions are motivated by processes we are unaware of; sexuality has very important role in understanding much of human behavior; early experience has a profound effect on personality. But many of the specifics of his theory I do not subscribe to. And he had a very meager account of emotions.


GP Dr. Martin Seligman, often says in his books that Freudian psychology is too pessimist, because mainly focalized on treatment of pain and disease. On the contrary, positive psychology looks at prevention of diseases, reachable also through the state of well-being. Do you think it might be useful ‘wearing’ positive facial expressions, to become more optimist and confident?

PE I doubt that putting on a positive expressions will change the quality of life; and, most people can not voluntarily activate one of the two critical muscles for enjoyment, orbicularis oculi,
pars lateralis.

GP You said that you have been interested to psychology as a young man because, in some way, you ‘wanted to change the world’ :psychotherapy was a way to resolve, or at least to alleviate the problems of humanity. Now you said you’ve changed your mind. Why? Is there anything else in the world that could carry out this task ?

PE I came to believe that more could be accomplished in understanding the causes of suffering from research than by treatment. Both are important, but I thought my talents would be
better deployed on research.

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GP Your long lasting research on facial expression has actually created a new science on this subject, science which, in theory, is possible to teach to everybody… Could this new skill help people to really improve their human relations?

PE I hope so. It can certainly help to better understand how others are feeling. It is harder to understand our own feelings, but I have written about that in my most recent book EMOTIONS REVEALED.

GP You said in human expressions there are the ‘themes’, which are the universal expressions and the ‘variations’ which are culture-specific. What are the ‘variations’ that typically belong to Italian people?

PE I wish I had spent enough time in Italy to know that.

GP Recently some scientists have asserted of being ready for the transplant of the human face: should this be really possible, the expressions on such a face are to be considered typical of the new owner (which moves his muscles following his habits) or essentially due to the anatomic feature of the person dead, whose face has been transplanted?

PE What creates the exressions are various centers in the brain; so unless the brain is transplanted the same expressions would appear.


GP In your research on facial expressions you surely have faced the blushing phenomenon: not a proper expression, but something that usually make people think that the person interested might be ‘guilty’, or at least ‘involved’. Is the ‘common sense’ right when states such a belief ?

PE Blushing Darwin said occurs when there is undue or unwarranted attentention by others to one self. blushing occurs with praise; or when a make causes others to notice what one has done incorrectly.

GP How much influence have family-life, education, general atmosphere in which you grow up in settling down your typical expressions? Is it possible to change them as an adult?

PE Very good questions but we dont know the answers.

GP You are Advisor to both the American Defense Department, the Pentagon, and the artists who design cartoons… What gives you a greater satisfaction?

PE I enjoy the work with the animators, helping them better entertain. The work with the Defense Department is aimed at saving lives by better detecting terrorists, and although my help is only a tiny contribution, saving lives is more important.

Giuliana Proietti

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Paul Ekman, Ph.D. is Professor (Emeritus) of Psychology at University of California, San Francisco. Ekman is a world-renowned expert in emotional research and nonverbal communication, particularly for his studies on emotional expression and the corresponding physiological activity of the face. His research has been supported by the National Institute of Mental Health for 46 years.

Contrary to the belief of some anthropologists, as Margaret Mead, Ekman found that most facial expressions and their corresponding emotions are not culturally determined, but are presumably biological in origin, as Charles Darwin had once theorized. Ekman’s finding is now widely accepted by scientists. Expressions he found to be universal included anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise.

Ekman also reported facial “microexpressions” that he claimed could be used to reliably detect lying, in an effort called the Diogenes Project. He also developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to taxonomize every conceivable human facial expression.

His latest book is Emotions Revealed (Times Books, April, 2003).


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