Understanding why and how our eyes are so outwardly expressive
Movies don’t really feature close-ups of noses, do they? You’ll sometimes get a shot of a tongue, or maybe an ear, but really, it’s nearly always eyes. Eyes showing if someone is surprised. Eyes show when someone is scared. Or angry. Or concentrating. This probably isn’t surprising, since we can actually identify a lot of emotional states just by looking at other people’s eyes (and brows, often.) New research is looking into the basis for this, looking to see why one set of sensory organs has become so much more expressive than the others.
The pattern that’s emerged is that certain physiological needs helped build the library of expressions that are now understood around the globe today. For example, tensing your brow and squinting may now be a way to telegraph a sense of intense focus, but that probably started because that facial activity would actually help you focus on a single point of interest. Squinting helps block excess light from your vision, as well as tightening the focus of a single point in front of you. It now carries emotional value to make such a face, but that’s only after it served practical value as well.
Compared to how much such an expression conveys about a person’s state of mind, it’s no wonder we don’t spend much time looking at noses. Flared nostrils just can’t compete with anatomy that has actually evolved to be more expressive.
Signs you suddenly “see” something
If the range of activity and emotion conveyed in our eyes isn’t enough for your liking, a separate line of study is looking at eye movement for signs of more internal thought processing. In this experiment, volunteers’ eye movement was tracked while they played a game on a computer. The game had a bit of a trick to it, and researchers wanted to see if any pattern of activity was apparent right before someone had their “aha!” moment of realization.
What they found is that there was some very brief hints that a person is about to figure things out. Right before locking in on the correct answer, the people who did figure out the game’s trick would spend a few moments looking over the “right” answer on the screen. Their eyes seemed to be fixating on the solution, even before the rest of the person’s brain was ready to act on it.
Source: Eye expressions offer a glimpse into the evolution of emotion by Melissa Osgood, Scienmag