from The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy
Duchenne de Boulogne and Patient, from The Mechanism of Human Physiognomy

A recent bout of research on photography and duplicity has led me back to Cambridge’s indomitable Darwin Correspondence Project. This editorial project is an extraordinarily valuable resource for Victorianist researchers, but I’m especially impressed by the compelling points of access the site provides into a mass of information that might otherwise seem quite imposing. I imagine that many curious but casual readers have been drawn in by the site’s weekly blog posts.

One especially intriguing item popped up a couple of weeks ago. It’s an interactive quiz that recreates an experiment Darwin conducted on his own friends and acquaintances. The DCP takes you through a series of Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne’s famous photographs of electrically induced emotions, first collected in his Mechanism of Human Physiognomy (1862), and later included in Darwin’s Expression Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). (Have a look at the photos here.)

Duchenne’s experiments mechanically produced spectacles of emotion. He isolated the muscles responsible for producing specific expressions, and then used electricity to trigger those muscles and photography to capture their contraction. Darwin’s auxiliary experiment borrowed Duchenne’s photographs as its apparatus, using them to measure our human capacity to make sense of these displays of emotion.

Last week, I conducted an experiment of my own on my students (minus the electrical probes!). It was less methodical than Duchenne’s work, or even Darwin’s informal tests, but nonetheless interesting in its own way.

While they observed a series of portraits, I had my students mimic photographed expressions in order to deduce the specific thought or feeling experienced by the sitter. Many found that initially ambiguous expressions could be “pulled into focus” when, through a kind of empathic mirroring, they physically reproduced these expressions. With varying degrees of intensity (all fairly muted), their mimetic performances generated the same emotion within. What was most fascinating for me was this shared experience that facial expression indexes emotions already inside of us and others, but can also artificially induce feelings.

This class exercise led me to a question concerning Duchenne’s primary subject, a shoemaker referred to only as “an old toothless man” (Mechanism 42). Duchenne assured critics that his sitter “was suffering from a complicated anaesthetic condition of the face,” one which allowed Duchenne to “experiment on his face without causing pain” (43). This old man’s ailment insulated him from the physical discomfort caused by the probes, but did it render him impervious to the emotional stimuli? Surprisingly, I have yet to find in Duchenne’s writing any consideration as to whether or not his subjects actually experienced the emotions they so emphatically communicate. Was Duchenne using these bodies to engineer a pure simulation of feeling (a surface without emotional depth) or did he manage to inculcate these emotions from the outside in?

2 thoughts on “Darwin and the Mechanisms of Human Expression

  1. What a great post and a great exercise to do with your students!

    I’m interested in some of the terminology you use here, Gregory, that suggests or maybe even privileges an inside/outside relationship between emotion and expression. For instance, you talk about how expression can “artificially induce feelings” but I wonder what makes this mode of feeling particularly “artificial”?

    By the way, I have always found the study done with vowel sounds and self-reported happiness really fascinating; there is a synopsis of it here:

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