Expressing fear enhances sensory acquisition

Nat Neurosci. 2008 Jul;11(7):843-50. doi: 10.1038/nn.2138. Epub 2008 Jun 15.


It has been proposed that facial expression production originates in sensory regulation. Here we demonstrate that facial expressions of fear are configured to enhance sensory acquisition. A statistical model of expression appearance revealed that fear and disgust expressions have opposite shape and surface reflectance features. We hypothesized that this reflects a fundamental antagonism serving to augment versus diminish sensory exposure. In keeping with this hypothesis, when subjects posed expressions of fear, they had a subjectively larger visual field, faster eye movements during target localization and an increase in nasal volume and air velocity during inspiration. The opposite pattern was found for disgust. Fear may therefore work to enhance perception, whereas disgust dampens it. These convergent results provide support for the Darwinian hypothesis that facial expressions are not arbitrary configurations for social communication, but rather, expressions may have originated in altering the sensory interface with the physical world.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Facial Expression*
  • Fear*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhalation / physiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Nose / anatomy & histology
  • Nose / physiology
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology
  • Perception / physiology
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Psychophysics
  • Sensation / physiology*
  • Sleep, REM / physiology
  • Visual Fields / physiology