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Facial Microexpressions: The Science of Reading Emotions

Facial microexpressions are brief, involuntary facial expressions that reveal a person's true emotions. They occur within a fraction of a second and are universal across cultures. These microexpressions are often difficult to detect, but with training, anyone can learn to spot them.

What are Microexpressions?

Microexpressions are facial expressions that occur within a fraction of a second. They are involuntary and often reveal a person's true emotions. These expressions are universal across cultures and can be difficult to detect. They can occur on various regions of the face and are often fleeting, lasting only a fraction of a second.

How to Read Microexpressions:

Reading microexpressions is like granting yourself a superpower. Knowing how to read faces is one of the most essential people skills everyone should know. Researchers have found that if you make the facial expression, you also begin feeling the emotion yourself. Emotions not only cause facial expressions, but facial expressions also cause emotions.

There are seven universal microexpressions: surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness, and contempt. Each microexpression has its own unique set of facial cues that can be difficult to detect. For example, the surprise microexpression is characterized by raised eyebrows, horizontal wrinkles across the forehead, and opened eyelids.

The Importance of Microexpressions:

Microexpressions are important because they can reveal a person's true emotions, even when they are trying to hide them. They can be used in a variety of scenarios, from security interviews and interrogations to media analysis. They can also be used in photography to capture more expressive portraits.

Capturing Microexpressions in Photography:

Capturing microexpressions in photography can create more expressive portraits. UK female brand photographer Magdalena Smolarska says that managing her clients' microexpressions on portrait photoshoots is her secret to creating expressive brand photos[1]. By capturing these fleeting expressions, photographers can create more authentic and emotional images.

Microexpression Training:

Microexpression training is the process of learning to detect and interpret microexpressions. It involves learning the seven universal microexpressions and their associated facial cues. The Science of People website offers a comprehensive guide to reading microexpressions, including videos and exercises to help you practice[2]. The Orlando Science Center also offers tips on how to practice recognizing microexpressions, including relaxing your face and observing your neutral expression[3].

The Science Behind Microexpressions:

Microexpressions are the result of a voluntary and involuntary emotional response occurring simultaneously and conflicting with one another[4]. They occur when the amygdala responds appropriately to the stimuli that the individual experiences and the individual wishes to conceal this specific emotion. Microexpressions express the seven universal emotions: disgust, anger, fear, sadness, happiness, contempt, and surprise. In the 1990s, Paul Ekman expanded his list of emotions, including a range of positive and negative emotions not all of which are encoded in facial muscles[4].

Machine Learning and Microexpressions:

Machine learning can be used to detect microexpressions and reveal true emotions. Researchers at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University developed a machine learning approach to detect microexpressions in interviews and media analysis[5]. While human interviewers can learn to read faces with specialized training, such training can be costly and time-consuming. Machine learning offers a promising alternative for detecting microexpressions.


Facial microexpressions are a fascinating aspect of human behavior. They reveal our true emotions and can be used to detect deception or to create more expressive portraits. With training, anyone can learn to spot these fleeting expressions and gain a deeper understanding of the people around them. Whether you are a photographer, a security professional, or just someone interested in people skills, learning to read microexpressions can be a valuable tool.


[1] Capturing facial microexpressions is my secret to create expressive portrait brand photos - UK Sussex female photographer - Magdalena Smolarska

[2] The Definitive Guide to Reading Microexpressions (Facial Expressions) - Science of People

[3] Microexpressions: A Universal Language You Wear on Your Face - Orlando Science Center

[4] Microexpression - Wikipedia

[5] Revealing True Emotions Through Micro-Expressions: A Machine Learning Approach

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