Emotions revealed – Paul Ekman

Emotions revealed – Paul Ekman

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Excerpts taken from : EMOTIONS REVEALED

by Paul Ekman


Nature doesn’t make it easy for us to achieve conscious awareness of the first moments when an emotion arises, let alone how we automatically make the appraisals of the world around us that generate our emotions. It is nearly impossible for most people ever to become aware of the automatic appraisal processes that initiate an emotional episode. Dan Goleman called this appraisal awareness.

But through hard work, by developing skills nature doesn’t provide and doesn’t make it easy for us to acquire, some people can learn impulse awareness, that is, becoming aware of an emotion-driven impulse before actions are taken.


I don’t believe emotions evolved in a way to facilitate impulse awareness. It is as if the emotion system doesn’t want our conscious mind to interfere in the matter. More than forty-five years ago Frank Gorman, my psychotherapy supervisor, said that my goal should be to help my patients increase the gap between impulse and action.

The Buddhists talk about recognizing the spark (that arises to initiate an emotion) before the flame (by which they mean the emotional behavior that enacts the emotion). They do not ask us to recognize the appraisal that generates the spark. The Western and Buddhist views on this are the same.

Impulse awareness is a high standard. I don’t believe everyone can reach it, and it is unlikely that even those who meet this standard will always do so. But the work we go through to develop impulse awareness will benefit what is achievable for nearly all of us—emotional behavior awareness, or recognizing our emotional state once it has begun to be expressed in words and actions. If you can become aware that an emotion has begun to drive your behavior, you can consciously consider whether your emotional reaction is appropriate to the situation you are in, and, if it is, whether your reaction is at the right intensity and manifesting itself in the most constructive way.



The very practice of learning to focus attention on an automatic process that requires no conscious monitoring creates the capacity to be attentive to other automatic processes.

We breathe without thinking, without conscious direction of each inhalation and exhalation. Nature does not require that we divert our attention to breathing. When we try paying attention to each breath, people find it very hard to do so for more than a minute, if that, without being distracted by thoughts. Learning to focus our attention on breathing takes daily practice, in which we develop new neural pathways that allow us to do it.

And here is the punch line: these skills transfer to other automatic processes—benefiting emotional behavior awareness and eventually, in some people, impulse awareness. I checked my explanation with renowned experts in meditation, and with those in emotion and the brain, and they think it makes sense. I recommend trying mindfulness meditation to see if it works for you. As I said, it won’t be easy, and it probably won’t be of much benefit to your emotional life unless pursued regularly. In every large city the telephone book lists meditation teaching, often available without cost.

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Micro expressions are also very difficult for most people to see. Typically they are very intense and very brief, as short as 1/25 of a second. Micro expressions are always the result of concealment. It may be deliberate, in which the people showing them know exactly how they are feeling but don’t want others to know. Or the concealment may be the consequence of repression, in which case the person is totally unaware of the concealed emotion the micro expression is displaying. It is important to note that not everyone who is concealing emotion shows a micro expression, so its absence does not mean you are getting the full story. But its presence is highly informative if you are able to see it.

Don’t presume you know what is causing the emotion you have spotted. Emotional expressions don’t reveal their source. A micro expression of anger doesn’t tell you the person is angry with you. The person might be angry with him- or herself. Or the person might be remembering an earlier event about which he or she felt angry.


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Here I want to give some general guidelines that apply to any emotional information you pick up in a subtle or micro expression. Often the best course is to say nothing about what you have seen. Instead, be alert to the possibilities.

Or you might say: “Is there anything more you want to say about how you are feeling?” A further step could be: “I had the impression you were just feeling something more than what you said.” You might even be more specific, asking about the emotion you spotted.

How you respond depends on the nature of the relationship, its past history and intended future, and your knowledge of that person. You may not always be entitled to comment, even vaguely, on the emotion you have detected. Although I believe that generally relationships work better when people understand and acknowledge how each other feel, that isn’t always so. Be cautious; don’t make the other person feel that he or she has no privacy.

Skills are hard to acquire; some of them require continued practice to maintain, such as the awareness skills I have just described.Some of them are like learning to ride a bicycle; once learned it sticks, and you don’t need to continue practice.

Paul Ekman

(c) Dr Paul Ekman, 2003. Extracted from EMOTIONS REVEALED by Dr Paul Ekman, published in English by Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, part of The Orion Publishiing Group, London.


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).


Read the exclusive interview to Paul Ekman

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