Facial expressions may have originated from a primitive sensory regulatory function that was then co-opted and further shaped for the purposes of social utility. In the research reported here, we tested such a hypothesis by investigating the functional origins of fear expressions for both the expresser and the observer. We first found that fear-based eye widening enhanced target discrimination in the available visual periphery of the expresser by 9.4%. We then found that fear-based eye widening enhanced observers' discrimination of expressers' gaze direction and facilitated observers' responses when locating eccentric targets. We present evidence that this benefit was driven by neither the perceived emotion nor attention but, rather, by an enhanced physical signal originating from greater exposure of the iris and sclera. These results highlight the coevolution of sensory and social regulatory functions of emotional expressions by showing that eye widening serves to enhance processing of important environmental events in the visual fields of both expresser and observer.
Keywords: emotions; evolutionary psychology; facial expressions; vision.