How Our Face Masks Fail Us

Ever wonder how much a mask hides in terms of your possible facial expressions? The answer is a lot: almost 75% of the variety of ways in which you might emote. For instance, the area around the eyes is great for picking up surprise and fear, but without the nose, cheeks, mouth, and chin, the possible presence of contempt and disgust won’t get revealed at all.

Starting on June 4th, I will be launching a podcast series called “Dan Hill’s EQ Spotlight” on the New Books Network platform. The show can be found here:  https://newbooksnetwork.com/category/eqspotlight/.

I’ll be chatting with prominent authors across a wide range of topics, teasing out the emotional intelligence angle of their subject matter. Interviews run between 30 to 45 minutes an episode.

For Portraits and Selfies: A Case of Monkey See, Monkey Not-Quite-Do

Portraits and Selfies Re-enactment of famous Art

Emotions can be as contagious as Covid-19, but that doesn’t mean the facial expressions are easy to capture when art devotees around the world use their imaginations in wonderful ways to recreate famous works of art at home. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles have gotten into the act, encouraging art lovers to re-stage famous art works. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/museum-asking-people-remake-famous-artworks-with-household-items-180974546/  But no entity has surpassed a Facebook group, started in Russia, that boasts over half a million art re-enactors. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/25/world/europe/russia-Facebook-art-parodies.html  If you’re a painter or photographer who does portrait work – or somebody who likes to pose for selfies and are interested in what your expressions reveal about your mood that day or your personality, over time – listen in. Here’s an opportunity to sharpen your skills or pose. For my book Famous Faces Decoded: A Guidebook for Reading Others, I surveyed participants on what they viewed as the signature, characteristic emotions of 173 celebrities. On average, they were right only about 35% of the time – meaning there’s no shame in failing to detect emotions well. Join the crowd. We’re all more likely to be Watson rather than Sherlock Holmes!

In terms of life imitating art, just how good are the re-enactors at capturing correct facial expressions? In truth pretty good, but not great. Above on the left side is “Salome” with the head of John the Baptist by the 17th-century Bolognese painter Guido Reni. On the right is that same painting’s recent staging by Aglaya Nikonorova and her husband, Alexander. What’s faithful to the original, in terms of the couple’s facial expressions? Both women have wide open eyes (anger, fear and surprise), pursed lips (anger) and a smirk on the left side of their mouths (contempt). So far, so good. But the original Salome also has a pouty, raised chin (indicating anger, sadness and disgust), whereas the imitation includes a raised left eyebrow, indicating an extra dose of fear and surprise. That difference is trifling, however, compared to John the Baptist’s head. In the original, the eyes are sunken in grief with a pool of wrinkles above them, and the eyebrows are raised, pushed out and pinched together above the nose. In the re-enactment John the Baptist appears to be taking a nap, with his face relaxed. Further reinforcing the difference, in the original John’s lips are slightly apart and pulled down, triggering the viewer to feel the horror of getting beheaded, and perhaps inducing a contagious tremble. In contrast, in the re-enactment John’s lips appear just as peaceful as his eyes. In short, it’s a matter of being close – but no cigar.

In simple terms, these are important take-aways about where and how people express their emotions on their faces whenever contemplating a portrait or selfie:

  • The upper face is the place for surprise and fear. When the eyes go wide and the eyebrows lift, we’re increasing our field of vision.
  • The area around the mouth reveals the like/dislike reactions best. Look for anger (tightening), disgust (contortions) or sadness (wincing especially).
  • The chin area never reveals any happiness. It’s best for wide-mouth surprise and fear, or a jutting chin for anger.

More re-enactments will be included in my virtual talk, sponsored by the Duluth Art Institute on Thursday, May 28that 3 p.m. The heart of the presentation, however, will be highlights from my recent art book First Blush: People’s Intuitive Reactions to Famous Art. It’s the biggest study ever done involving eye-tracking and art – plus facial coding of participants’ responses, in order to also know how they feel about what they’re specifically seeing. The event is free but you must register. Please go to https://www.duluthartinstitute.org/event-3843385/Registration

Open to Sorrow vs. Open for Business

Empathy in Presidents Bush and Obama but not Trump

First, the overwhelming statistic: an American died from Covid-19 every 42 seconds in April. Now for the underwhelming statistic: over the course of three weeks of daily coronavirus press briefings in April, only four minutes of Donald Trump’s 13 hours of remarks directly acknowledged the pandemic’s victims. In other words, verbal mourning only took up about 0.05% of Trump’s time and even less of his emotional energy.  Note his smirking smile as he uses the daily briefing to preen and joust with reporters.

 Contrast that lack of empathy with this photo of George W. Bush offering somebody a consoling hug after 9/11 and of Barack Obama openly weeping after the school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Reliable signs of sadness are that a wince creases our cheeks and our inner eyebrows rise, creating a puddle of wrinkles across our foreheads. The difference between Trump fervently wanting America “open for business again” while being so un-open to the sufferings of anybody other than himself couldn’t be greater. We’re enduring a marathon of unknown length with a leader who, in terms of compassion, has barely crossed the starting line.

Loaded Logos: Brands in History’s Shadow

Native American Logos

She almost died a quiet death, and certainly the Minnesota-based farmer cooperative known as Land O’Lakes would have preferred it that way. But when the Minnesota Reformer ran a story about the Land O’Lakes company retiring the Indian maiden who has appeared on its packaging for nearly a century, the story blew up on social media and elsewhere. Soon the retirement reached The New York Times and Fox News, leading U.S. congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) to denounce politically correct “millennials” supposedly taking over the co-op.

Now on the surface, the maiden mascot re-designed in the 1950’s by an Ojibwe Indian artist, Patrick DesJariat, may not seem anything other than benign. What’s objectionable about a young Native American woman kneeling by the side of a blue lake, holding a 4-stick box of butter? Her smile is pleasant enough – but that’s where the problem starts. That’s because the image of a happy Indian maiden evokes tales of U.S. cavalry troops stationed at reservation forts engaging in what they euphemistically called “squaw-chasing” and what we should acknowledge was coerced “seduction” or worse. Being portrayed as sexually available and subject to conquering isn’t desirable. Now, the smile alone might not get us to such a sinister reading of the Land O’Lakes logo. But add in the maiden’s kneeling, compliant posture, and the fact that for years people on social media have practiced the “boob trick” of revising the logo’s image so that the maiden’s knees are chest-high instead, and you can begin to see why the co-op finally, wisely, decently enough decided that the time had come to stop trafficking in Indian stereotypes.

The truth is that lots of logos exist that should be retired. Perhaps the worst prominent use of Native American imagery is in baseball: the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo. His eyebrows are raised and his eyes are wide open, fully alert. His smile is intense, too, and fierce. Taken together, the Chief’s beady eyes and all those teeth showing suggest how, when the mouth pulls wide and taut, the emotion being revealed is vivid anger, like a dog growling because its bone has been taken away.

Some offensive imagery has been retired; until 1991 a Mexican armed robber, the Frito Bandito, was used to sell that snack. Other vile brand logos remain. There’s a long history of African-Americans being made into caricatures, resembling the grateful, obsequious house servants in Gone with the Wind. I’m thinking of Quaker Oats’ Aunt Jemima and Mars’ chef, Uncle Ben, for instance. The recent modified versions of those logos are certainly more upscale, sleek and less servile-looking, but frankly my dear I don’t give a damn: get rid of them.

Monetizing the Presidency

Tump Store cherry blossom White House

Last spring, Donald Trump launched his “Cherry Blossom Collection” available online at his Trump Store, complete with images of The White House appearing below the branding: Trump Hotels. Now for his encore performance, Trump has delayed the release of the Covid-19 economic stimulus checks so that his name can be added to the checks’ memo section. This break in protocol led me to imagine he might want a currency bill of his own. Which national leaders featured on U.S. paper bills would most compete with the highly-emotive Trump? There are two.

Jackson and Franklin on currency with facial coding

First, Trump’s favorite president, Andrew Jackson ($20) wins the sadness sweepstakes with eyebrows both raised and pinched together, creating waves of wrinkles across his forehead. Jackson’s mouth also shows sadness with left corner of his puckered mouth drooping. Second, Benjamin Franklin ($100) wins the defiantly on-guard award. His eyebrows are arched, his eyes wide, and his drawn-up chin collides with firmly pressed lips that hint at a smile while a smirk crowns the left corner of his mouth. It’s quite the feat: surprise in Franklin’s upper face, while his lower faces mixes together anger, disgust, and a hint of a smile overshadowed by contempt (i.e., the smirk).

Let’s imagine Trump really, really, really wants to win re-election. What might that take? My suggestion is that he substitute his characteristically angry, sad and disgust-ridden face for Woodrow Wilson’s tight-lipped look, and re-release the $100,000 gold certificate that was briefly in circulation amid the Great Depression. As unemployment skyrockets, I can’t think of more apt symbolism than that right now.

041620-03 100k Bill

Battle Fatigue

Dan's Blog 4.2.20

Every doctor and nurse putting their lives at risk to combat the pandemic should be honored for their courage, generosity and steadfastness. With eyes wide with fear and seemingly near tears, this nurse also shows pressed lips and a raised chin that reveal grim determination to hang in there.

So it’s with appalled amazement that I’ve heard about medical staff members being fired for speaking up about a greater need to protect the safety of colleagues and themselves. Hospital directors deserve our praise and gratitude, too, but not when they’re motivated to protect their institution’s “reputation” over those on the front lines. Better to practice what the marquee at a closed movie theater down the street from my house proclaims: Be Kind / Stay Safe.