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Paul Ekman is the world’s foremost research scientist upon the subject of facial expression and its relationship to emotions and in October I posted a blog Emotional Awareness: by Paul Ekman & Dalai Lama which was a review of a lecture of his which I attended. His book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the marketplace, politics, and marriage has had my attention for the last couple of days and on page 144 ff. there is a discussion of asymmetrical facial expressions. This piqued my interest because of some very strange experiences which I had about twenty years ago when I endured Bell’s palsy for less than a month. I had a very severe cold, or flu, or whatever that somehow landed in the left side of my throat and proceeded into my left inner ear. I remember feeling poorly and had a fever. This was before I discovered how to cure colds, and so the whole thing ran its natural course which in this case was complete loss of feeling, and movement of the left side of my face. It had an onset time over several hours, and it was startling enough that I called my doctor about 11PM. He thought from my description of symptoms that I had Bell’s palsy which was what the later diagnosis proved it to be and I was treated with Prednisolone, a corticosteroid.


Above are some Bell’s Palsy victims smiling. (from a Google search) After the original injury event the palsy symptoms are no longer physically painful, but as you can see they are a social problem. Also, it is rather difficult to eat as food will fall out of the slack side of ones mouth. However, I found if you hold the palsied side of the face up, with the same side hand, to hold the mouth closed, it isn’t terribly inconvenient.

Bell”s palsy is not particularly uncommon and about one person in sixty will have it during their lifetime, I now know several people who have had it. Fortunately for me mine completely cleared up in three weeks. A older woman, I know, who caught it in her 70s never recovered, and several years later, still has a severe drooping on one side of her face. The presenting feature of this disease, which is brought about by the non-functioning of the trigeminal nerves, near the joints of the jaw bone, is the complete flaccidity of one side of the face. When this trigeminal nerve doesn’t function the victim can’t tense the muscles, and the natural tension is also lost, and so the flaccidity.

The strange thing which I noticed while I had the Bell’s palsy was that when I smiled (as in the photographs above) as for example when something funny happened, it felt emotionally hypocritical. It became apparent that when only one side of my face smiled, and the other side didn’t that there was a direct linkage both ways between the inner feeling, and the external expression. Usually we think we have an emotion inside, and our face portrays the emotion we are feeling, but in this case if the face expressed an emotion then the inner self felt the emotion, but the emotion felt is distorted toward the expression on the face.

One of the facial expressions of hypocrisy uses an asymmetrical one sided expression which is often accompanied nowadays with the words, “Yah, right”. The intention of this combination statement, and facial expression is to convey agreeing with the words without agreeing with the statement, or the sentiment behind the statement. This two way conversation between nerve cells in the brain, and the nerve cells in the face, so that they affect each other, is discussed as happening in the brain, and sensory organs like the eye in the book On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins. It is a book about how the brain functions. I know of no one making this two way linkage outside of the brain, but the Bell’s Smile might be an example of it. Perhaps, this kind of action is going on all the time with other nervous system interactions outside of the brain, but it only becomes apparent when there is a disturbance such as shutting half of a parallel system, as seen in Bell’s palsy.


On further rereading of Telling Lies I found on page 118, “To learn the mechanics of facial expressions—which muscles produce which expression—my colleagues and I systematically made thousands of facial expressions, filming and then analyzing how each combination of muscle movements change appearance. To our surprise, when we did the muscle actions that relate to emotions, we would suddenly feel changes in our bodies, changes due to ANS activity. We had no reason to expect that deliberately moving facial muscles could produce involuntary ANS changes, but it happened again and again.” I think this observation has been made many times before: by Jesus for example and it is the underlying principle in his famous prayer, and by Machiavelli where he recommends for an aspiring man to copy the actions of a successful man to acquire the automatic inner responses which lead to success, and by all sorts of self-help gurus who recommend various techniques for controlling ones inner self and of course by the father of method acting, Stanislavski.

But, what I observed with the Bell’s palsy smile was a testable experiment where the trigeminal nerve of normal volunteers could be temporarily inactivated with a nerve blocking agent such as novacaine. This would permit a person to experience for themselves the various modifications of felt experience when only half of their face expressed an emotion. Also it this were done in Ekman’s lab he could do his standardized photographs, and movies, and with a bevy of actors could go through a great many different facial expressions with this half-faced technique, and not just the smiling ones which are commonly reported.