Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity

Psychophysiology. 1990 Jul;27(4):363-84. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.1990.tb02330.x.


Four experiments were conducted to determine whether voluntarily produced emotional facial configurations are associated with differentiated patterns of autonomic activity, and if so, how this might be mediated. Subjects received muscle-by-muscle instructions and coaching to produce facial configurations for anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise while heart rate, skin conductance, finger temperature, and somatic activity were monitored. Results indicated that voluntary facial activity produced significant levels of subjective experience of the associated emotion, and that autonomic distinctions among emotions: (a) were found both between negative and positive emotions and among negative emotions, (b) were consistent between group and individual subjects' data, (c) were found in both male and female subjects, (d) were found in both specialized (actors, scientists) and nonspecialized populations, (e) were stronger when the voluntary facial configurations most closely resembled actual emotional expressions, and (f) were stronger when experience of the associated emotion was reported. The capacity of voluntary facial activity to generate emotion-specific autonomic activity: (a) did not require subjects to see facial expressions (either in a mirror or on an experimenter's face), and (b) could not be explained by differences in the difficulty of making the expressions or by differences in concomitant somatic activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Facial Expression*
  • Facial Muscles / innervation*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microcomputers
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / instrumentation
  • Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted / instrumentation