On the reality television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the lucky recipient gets a first look at his newly renovated home. For a split second, his face contorts with—shock? Joy? During intense emotional experiences, there’s a fleeting moment when expressions of pleasure and pain are hard to distinguish. In fact, others read intense emotion more effectively by looking at a person’s body language than by watching his facial expressions, a new study suggests.
Most studies of facial cues rely on a set of stylized, recognizable expressions—perhaps made by actors in photographs. The actors make expressions meant to be obvious enough to translate across cultures: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. But these stylized images don’t necessarily reflect the expressions that people make in the real world, says Hillel Aviezer, a neuropsychologist at who is now at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and lead author of the new study, published online today in Science. Moreover, when emotions get particularly extreme, people undergoing fleeting peaks of intense pain, joy, grief, or anger look surprisingly similar, Aviezer says. From the face, at least, “when you compare extreme pain to extreme pleasure, you really can’t tell them apart,” he says.
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