Space & Innovation

This Negative Facial Expression Is Universal

A furrowed brow, lifted chin and pressed-together lips — a mix of anger, disgust and contempt — are used to show negative moral judgment among many languages.

The facial expression indicating disagreement is universal, researchers say.

A furrowed brow, lifted chin and pressed-together lips - a mix of anger, disgust and contempt - are used to show negative moral judgment among speakers of English, Spanish, Mandarin and American Sign Language (ASL), according to a new study published in the May issue of the journal Cognition. In ASL, speakers sometimes use this "not face" alone, without any other negative sign, to indicate disagreement in a sentence.

"Sometimes, the only way you can tell that the meaning of the sentence is negative is, that person made the ‘not face' when they signed it," Aleix Martinez, a cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.

Photos: Horses, Humans Share Facial Expressions

Combo expression Martinez and his colleagues previously identified 21 distinct facial emotions, including six basic emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise and disgust), plus combinations of those (happy surprise, for example, or the kind of happy disgust someone might express after hearing a joke about poop).

The researchers wondered if there might be a basic expression that indicates disapproval across cultures. Disapproval, disgust and disagreement should be foundational emotions to communicate, they reasoned, so a universal facial expression marking these emotions might have evolved early in human history. [Smile Secrets: 5 Things Your Grin Reveals About You]

The researchers recruited 158 university students and filmed them in casual conversation in their first language. Some of these students spoke English as a native tongue, while others were native Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or ASL speakers. These languages have different roots and different grammatical structures. English is Germanic, Spanish is in the Latin family and Mandarin developed independently from both. ASL developed in the 1800s from a mix of French and local sign language systems, and has a grammatical structure distinct from English.

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But despite their differences, all of the groups used the "not face," the researchers found. The scientists elicited the expression by asking the students to read negative sentences or asking them to answer questions that they'd likely answer in the negative, such as, "A study shows that tuition should increase 30 percent. What do you think?"

Without a sign As the students responded with phrases like, "They should not do that," their facial expressions changed. By analyzing the video of the conversations frame by frame and using an algorithm to track facial muscle movement, Martinez and his colleagues were able to show that a combination of anger, disgust and contempt danced across the speakers' faces, regardless of their native tongue. A furrowed brow indicates anger, a raised chin shows disgust and tight lips denote contempt.

The "not face" was particularly important in ASL, where speakers can indicate the word "not" either with a sign or by shaking their head as they get to the point of the sentence with the negation. The researchers found, for the first time, that sometimes, ASL speakers do neither - they simply make the "not face" alone.

"This facial expression not only exists, but in some instances, it is the only marker of negation in a signed sentence," Martinez said.

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The researchers are now building an algorithm to handle massive amounts of video data, and hope to analyze at least 10,000 hours of data from YouTube videos to understand other basic facial expressions and how people use expressions to communicate alongside language.

Original article on Live Science.

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A facial expression that implies disagreement is the same in several cultures, scientists have found.

Horses share some surprisingly similar facial expressions with humans, a new study finds. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found that, like humans, horses use muscles underlying various facial features, including their nostrils, lips and eyes. These alter their facial expressions in a variety of situations. "Horses have rich social lives, and to me it seems likely that horses have evolved a wide range of facial expressions to help them communicate effectively with other members of their species," lead author Jennifer Wathan of the University of Sussex told Discovery News. She added, "I think what surprised me most was that we didn't expect horses to have any similarities with humans at all. They're two such distantly related species and, at first glance, have such differently shaped faces." If there is a horse version of laughing, that is not yet known. The researchers are still investigating what emotions are tied to the horse facial expressions.

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The study was built on prior research that determined cues from the face are important for horses to communicate. For this latest research, Wathan and her team analyzed video footage of a wide range of naturally occurring horse behaviors to identify all of the different movements it is possible for horses to make with their face. The researchers also carried out an anatomical investigation of the facial muscles that control these movements. As for humans, the showing of the upper and or lower sets of teeth was found to be one commonly used expression. In this case, the pony is likely showing what's known as the Flehmen response. By curling back its upper lip and exposing its front teeth, it facilitates air transfer over a scent-related organ (the vomeronasal organ) located above the roof of the mouth just behind the front teeth. Often animals will do this when they encounter a pungent odor or another member of their own species. Scientists still debate vomeronasal function in humans. It's possible, however, that some of our expressions evolved from similar needs and modes of sniffing.

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While humans have bonded with horses for centuries, horse facial expressions evolved for interaction with their own kind, the researchers believe. "There might be some elements of their communication that have been influenced by domestication, but it seems most likely that the wide repertoire of facial expressions in horses has evolved to support horse-horse communication," Wathan explained.

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This particular horse appears to be relaxed and curious. As for humans, underlying tension is revealed (or not) in the muscles between the jaw and eyes, and also just above the eyes.

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Previous research

found that horses are among the most loyal of friends to humans. They seem to never forget a kind deed, or a problem. Horses, however, appear to often forgive past conflicts, even if they do not forget them. Despite this knowledge, senior author Karen McComb of the University of Sussex said, "It was previously thought that, in terms of other species, the further away an animal was from humans, the more rudimentary their use of facial expressions would be." Horse expressions, as for humans expressions, are anything but rudimentary, however, as the new study revealed.

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Although differences clearly exist between the face structure of horses versus that of humans, there are many similar expressions in relation to movements of the lips and eyes. Wathan said, "One example is that horses and humans can both raise the skin above their eyes, which seems to happen in negative emotional situations. Another example is the retraction of the lip corners, which seems to be part of a submissive gesture in horses."

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Dogs and cats remain the most popular pets for humans. If cost, size and upkeep were not factors, though, it would be interesting to see how many people would get a horse, considering how close the emotional connection can be between horses and humans. "Dogs, horses, cats and humans are all very different animals, however, there are some similarities across the species and horses demonstrate more similarities to humans than cats or dogs do," Wathan said.

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Wathan, McComb and their colleagues Anne Burrows and Bridget Waller identified 17 discrete facial movements in horses. They refer to these as "action units." Dogs have very expressive faces, but they remarkably have fewer such discrete facial movements than horses do. Dogs have three more than chimps do, though. Humans turn out to be the most expressive of all these animals, having 27 such facial movements.

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Stoppers, the racehorse shown here, has a lot to "smile" about, since horses have extremely keen eyesight. Wathan said, "Horses are predominantly visual animals, with eyesight that's better than domestic cats and dogs." She explained that, in the wild, horses are prey animals, and visual detection for them is a life or death matter. The wolf relatives of dogs and the feline wild ancestors of cats, conversely, will scavenge or hunt down prey. This requires good eyesight too, but the visual abilities of these animals pale in comparison to that of horses. "Horses also have quite rich social lives," Wathan continued, "where they have many close range interactions with other members of their species. Visual communication and a good ability to be able to perceive visual signals seem as though they would be adaptive in this situation." "Moreover," she added, "visual communication may reduce the chances of horses being spotted by a predator compared to, say, vocal communication."

Horses Evolved 4 Million Years Ago

The researchers are now looking at how the facial expressions relate to emotional states. Studies just on the latter are also ongoing. The team is also investigating facial expressions in a range of other animals. As for why horses and humans seem to have so much in common, the researchers now have two working theories. Wathan explained that the "similarities suggest that either these facial movements are a very old form of communication that was used by our ancestors and has been preserved in some species, or they evolved in a similar way in both horses and humans in response to common evolutionary pressures." In short, facial expressions are just one example of the many things horses and humans have in common.