Micro-Expressions: A Mentalist’s Tool

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Mentalists are usually performance artists (you can also see some working as police consultants) that, through their 5 highly trained senses and years of knowledge attained, can create a sensation of a 6th sense and make us believe they’re capable of some extraordinary things. 

But again, don’t fall for this trap. The truth is that we actually talk much more than we think we do, without even using our voice. This article will give you some pointers on this kind of non-verbal communication – micro-expressions. If you study this art and how to decipher it (it is a learnable skill!) you can “steal” information about someone who’s trying to hide emotions. Even though this is made to help you enhance your social awareness, we also need to warn you about the dangers of emotional learning.

Micro-Expressions

Micro-expressions were the result of Haggard and Isaacs’ research, even though the term was popularized by Dr. Paul Ekman, whose research led to the premise of the popular TV Show “Lie To Me”. They’re an essential part of the art of mentalism in general and are an essential pillar of any good mentalism course that focuses on daily life advantages instead of just the performance side.

A good way to understand micro-expressions is if you think about them as “leaked emotions”. Thoughts you’re not trying to convey, but that your face muscles communicate, unconsciously, to the outside. So you have an idea of how subtle they are, normal expressions, or macro-expressions will usually last between ½ of a second and 4 seconds. They fit with the emotion someone is trying to show and are often repeated. Micro-expressions will last between 1/15 and 1/25 of a second and are usually the result of an emotion being suppressed.

The Seven Universal Ones

Let’s start with the basics. There are 7 universal micro-expressions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust and contempt. What does this mean? People in France will convey the same micro-expressions for sadness than people in some isolated village in Africa, that don’t have anyone to mimic, as most have never even seen TV. Dr. Paul Ekman was pretty sure they could be called universal, as even people who were born blind and never saw a human face in their life, also demonstrate those micro-expressions.

Happiness 

  • We smile (we draw back and up the corners of our lips)
  • We may expose our teeth, but that’s not always true
  • Our cheeks are raised, creating a wrinkle from the outer nose to the upper lip
  • We tense our lower eyelid
  • The called “crow’s feet” are shown on the outside of our eyes

A quick way to differentiate fake happiness from the real one are the side-eye muscles. If they’re not tense and activated, the person you’re looking at isn’t really happy.

Sadness

  • We draw in and up the corners of our eyelids
  • Usually, our lower lip pouts out and we draw down the corners of our lips
  • Our jaw comes up

Probably, the hardest expression to fake successfully, as the micro-expressions we convey are pretty subtle and small. Fairly easy to spot, as it is one of the longest-lasting ones – people can actually develop a sad resting face.  

Fear

  • Usually, in a flat line, our eyebrows are raised and drawn together.
  • The white part of our eyes are shown above the pupil, but not under it
  • We lower our lower eyelid but raise our upper one.
  • The wrinkles in our forehead concentrate between our eyebrows
  • We open our mouth (not too much) and we tense/stretch our lips, drawing them back

Opening our eyes and mouth actually serves two purposes – increases our line of view and prepares us to shout and breath a large amount of oxygen. It’s also one of the emotions we’re most likely to mimic when faced with it.

Anger

  • A hard stare is typical, with our eyebrows lowered and drawn together, creating also some vertical wrinkles between them
  • We tense our lower lip and press it against our upper one, making the corners of our mouth slightly down
  • We jut out our lower jaw
  • Our nostrils may become slightly dilated

A study conducted in 2019, showed we find it more difficult to trust angry people, as the squinted eyes and lowered eyebrows makes it harder to see the window to the soul – the eyes. 

Surprise

  • The white part of our eyes are shown above and below the pupil and our eyelids become pretty open
  • We curve and raise our eyebrows
  • Our forehead has horizontal wrinkles and the skin just below it is stretched
  • Even though there is no tension showed, our jaw drops open and our teeth are parted

A brief eyebrow raise, also called “eyebrow” flash, can be helpful in the dating game, as it shows someone is impressed or attracted to some aspect of our personality or physic

Disgust

  • Our nose becomes pretty wrinkled
  • We may expose or upper teeth
  • We raise our cheeks and upper lip
  • Our eyes become narrow

Disgust is usually achieved when we smell something bad, taste a nasty food or hear something awful. Probably the one you should avoid most when it comes to showing it to other people at all times.

Contempt

  • We raise just one side of our mouth

The only asymmetrical micro-expression, contempt is usually a negative response, caused by dislike, disrespect, or offensiveness towards someone.

Final Thoughts

Now that you’ve got some pointers, it’s time to put it to practice. We don’t recommend going headfirst and shouting to everyone’s face that they’re lying, but you can start by silently predicting some social cues. Is that girl about to make an excuse to leave the conversation? Will that guy fist pump the air after shaking the interviewer’s hand? When your guessing rate reaches a high value, you can start impressing your friends and even get an edge in your professional and personal life! Thanks for reading.

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