Artists often use live models when painting facial portraits, says researcher David Wilkins. “Even an abstract work like Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ involved a live model.” Wilkins is part of a team studying techniques used in psychology, art, and acting to help people with autism learn to read facial expressions. The findings will be integrated in an interactive learning environment. (Courtesy: Tate Collection)

STANFORD (US)—Can people be trained to recognize facial emotions? That’s the goal of work by Stanford University researcher David Wilkins, who is studying techniques used by portrait artists, actors, and psychologists.

His findings will be integrated in an interactive learning environment to coach people with autism to better recognize facial emotions.

Wilkins, a lecturer in Stanford’s Symbolic Systems Program, is focusing on the seven universal emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, disgust, and contempt—all fundamentally important in human communication.


When actors such as Katharine Hepburn express facial emotions, “They capture something that we find significant and that captivates us,” says Wilkins.

“In everyday life, the average individual with autism has less than a 50 percent chance of knowing if your expression is happy or sad or angry. If you don’t recognize universal emotions, any type of interpersonal interaction is really hindered,” Wilkins says.

Facing the facts
The deeper scientific understanding in psychology of the seven universal facial emotions began in the 1960s, and was pioneered by psychologists such as Paul Ekman. A large amount of research now links the behavior of the facial muscles associated with universal emotions to brain states, memory, and body physiology.

The understanding of facial expressions in art goes back much further than in psychology.

“Historically, the fields that demonstrated the deepest understanding of facial emotions have been drawing and acting. When artists draw the face or actors express facial emotions, they capture something that we find significant and that captivates us,” Wilkins says.

An artful act
Good actors subtly and accurately portray authentic emotions. A powerful portrayal reflects an actor’s understanding of what goes on in the face of someone who is joyful, sad, or angry.

Artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt and Picasso display in their portraits their own subtle and ingenious ability to interpret human facial emotions.

Wilkins is collaborating with Kay Kostopoulos, a lecturer in Stanford’s drama department; Michael Azgour, a guest artist in symbolic systems; and Antonio Hardan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center and the director of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Clinic at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. They plan to conduct facial emotion learning experiments with autistic children this summer.

Psychology of the face
The team is using psychology research techniques, such as the Facial Action Coding System, which categorizes how individuals move muscles in the face when displaying emotions.

For example, a fearful face often raises eyebrows and pulls them together, while a surprised face often raises eyebrows and curves them. Surprised faces often also involve a drop of the jaw.

“We all, depending on our culture, have a certain way of showing when we’re sad or angry. But across cultures it turns out that the specific muscles associated with each of the seven universal emotions are the same. We can try to conceal their action, but even then they often contract very briefly, for about 1/25 of a second, and tell what you’re really feeling even though you are trying to conceal your feelings,” Wilkins says.

In addition to these microexpressions, psychologists study subtle expressions. These are small, involuntary facial movements that are displayed when an emotion is first being felt. If a person is trying to conceal anger, for example, she may briefly lower the eyebrows and draw them together, without moving anything else on her face.

Drawing and acting out emotions
To capture facial expressions by drawing, artists from Leonardo to Picasso have traditionally drawn or painted facial portraits in a studio setting. “Common elements in the studio setting are the use a live model, an attention to the lighting of the model, and having the model hold an expression for an extended period of time,” Wilkins explains. “Even an abstract work like Picasso’s Weeping Woman involved a live model.”

To exhibit facial expressions, actors often use method acting. They recall an emotional memory from their past and use it to let the emotion appear on their face. Wilkins and his team are designing experiments for individuals with autism in certain kinds of art, acting and psychology techniques.  The goal is to find which techniques provide the greatest improvement in facial emotion recognition.

One exercise that could help an individual with autism learn surprise, for example, involves focusing on eyebrows that rise and curve on an animated, three-dimensional avatar. The avatar might bear the participant’s own face.

“If you wanted to teach someone to emote sadness, one exercise would be to show them a projection of what they would like to convey sadness and what they currently look like.  They could be given interactive guidance to get the two projections to look alike,” Wilkins says.

The research is funded by a grant from the Stanford Institute for Creativity in the Arts and the Symbolic Systems Program in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

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