Most of us would like to think our face can’t be read, that we maintain a good poker face which doesn’t reveal our hidden emotions. However, it has been proven impossible to completely conceal what’s on our mind due to involuntary facial expressions, especially to a person who knows what to look for. Physiognomy (a person’s facial features or expressions),Pupillometry (measuring pupil diameter in psychology), and a simple head tilt can allude to our emotional status. It seems through our evolution as humans, we developed these involuntary reactions to stimuli and never lost the habit. We can see the same expressions in a blind person who has never observed the facial mannerisms of another. Darwin even postulated that humans have “microexpressions” which last only a fraction of a second. So, how can we put this to use and what can we learn about a person?

  1. Lie Detection- Almost anyone would tell you they would enjoy being proficient at detecting deception. Before the invention of the polygraph about 90 years ago, authorities used some of the same techniques that I’ll be describing to you. The majority of us have been told at some point in our lives that you can tell a person is lying by which way their eyes move. Scientists believe that when we look down and to the right, we are having creative thoughts. In other words, we would be making up a story or forming false memories. When we look downward to the left, we are accessing real memories. A person’s pupils might dilate when they are lying, as well, since they are thinking harder about the things they’re saying. Other tell-tale signs are mostly obvious and include signs of nervousness such as squinting, twitching, a furrowed forehead, etc.
  2. Cognitive Activity- As I hinted to in the Lie Detection paragraph, our pupil sizes also show observers how hard we are thinking or concentrating. Our pupils will dilate when we are solving a problem or absorbing information. They also retract when we have ceased to do so. Therefore, with observation we would know whether a student had given up on a difficult math problem or if a person were quicker to answer a question while test-taking. The size of pupil variation lessens with higher intelligence, which I believe to be due to the fact that an intelligent person is more perceptive and has more brain activity at any given time than an average thinker.
  3. Arousal & Attraction- Here is another way that your pupil size can give you away. Our pupils dilate when we look at erotic images or become aroused. This is a response to the autonomic nervous system i.e. your pulse and breathing speed up causing your pupils to enlarge as a result. In fact, the Canadian government developed what they called the “Fruit Test” in the 1950’s in order to rid themselves of any homosexual employees. They showed the subjects racy photographs and recorded their pupils, which in turn led to some 9,000 people being deemed homosexual. (FYI I do not agree with this sort of discrimination in any way.) I’ve combined arousal and attraction here since the two go hand in hand. As far as attraction goes, a woman will often lower her head while maintaining eye contact when flirting. A tilt to the side while talking to another might also indicate that you are interested in what is being said. This can also be seen as a flirtatious move.
  4. Showing Superiority or Inferiority- There’s an old saying that goes “He/She looks down their nose at me.” This can be taken really quite literally. A person who feels superior will raise their head back while talking to you and “look down their nose” at you. It is also said that lowering your head says to another “I am inferior or submissive to you.” This can tie back in to the flirting and attraction category, but I mention it here again because studies have shown that we also tilt our heads to expose the carotid artery which shows submissiveness.
  5. Confusion- Here is yet another reason why we cock our heads to the side.. Scientists have found that animals and humans began tilting their heads long ago as an effort to triangulate sound. Holding the head at a different angle helps to determine which direction noise is coming from. Over time, humans associated this with confusion and that is why it is inherent to us to this day. (You can also see this in other animals such as dogs and lizards.)

With all these emotions and factors being listed, it seems a daunting task to read someone. Using a little skill and good judgement will go a long way. First, you want to establish a baseline. Examine the person you’re speaking with to determine how they behave regularly. Do they always have shifty eyes from anxiety? Do they maintain eye contact? Then take into account the lighting. We all know pupils dilate and retract from a change in the brightness of light being observed. You might also see the pupil size varying according to the distance of the object the person is looking at. Take into consideration the person’s intelligence level (if you know it), the situation, and what is being said. Sounds simple, right?