Selection for Universal Facial Emotion

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Facial expression is heralded as a communication system common to all human populations, and thus is generally accepted as a biologically based, universal behavior. Happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust are universally recognized and produced emotions, and communication of these states is deemed essential in order to navigate the social environment. It is puzzling, however, how individuals are capable of producing similar facial expressions when facial musculature is known to vary greatly among individuals. Here, the authors show that although some facial muscles are not present in all individuals, and often exhibit great asymmetry (larger or absent on one side), the facial muscles that are essential in order to produce the universal facial expressions exhibited 100% occurrence and showed minimal gross asymmetry in 18 cadavers. This explains how universal facial expression production is achieved, implies that facial muscles have been selected for essential nonverbal communicative function, and yet also accommodate individual variation.

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