Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life

Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life
by Paul Ekman
NON-FICTION – Paul Ekman is a scientist and psychologist who has studied human emotion for several decades, especially how emotion is expressed in the face and voice. Ekman provides insight into a number of questions — When do we become emotional and why? How do we reconize the emotions we’re feeling and can we changed them, or change how we react to them? How do we recognize what others are feeling, even when they may be hiding their emotions?
You start the book by taking a test in the appendix — a quiz on your ability to quickly recognize facial expressions. You may get a lot wrong, but by the end of the book when you retake the test, you’ll do much better.
In his early studies, Ekman sought to answer a controversy in emotional science – do all humans use the same facial expressions to indicated emotion, and are those expressions learned, or innate? To solve the question, he spent three months with a stone age culture of people in New Guinea that had virtually no contact with the outside world. After working with and photographing the people in a small village, he came to the conclusion that facial expressions are universal — all people make the same expressions for fear, anger, sadness, enjoyable emotions, etc.
Ekman walks through a number of different emotions and illustrates how they are expressed in the human face to help recognize subtle, partial or hidden expressions that will help you understand what emotions are being expressed by others.
One of the expressions I found really interesting is the “Duchenne” smile — a smile we express when we’re really happy, versus a “social smile” that we use to be polite or when we want to conceal unhappiness from others. I’ve always been able to reconize the difference between the two (I described them as a “real smile” versus a “fake smile”) — particularly in my girlfriend, but also in other people I know well, like my mom and some of my friends. A “Duchenne smile” — a smile of true happiness — involves not just the mouth but muscles around the eyes, and is impossible to fake because the eye muscles can’t be controlled voluntarily.
Ekman’s current studies are about how emotions are expressed by individuals — do some people have different levels of response to the same emotion than other people do? If so, how does that affect them, and can they learn to handle those emotions in ways that stimulate good communication with the people around them?
I sought out more about Paul Ekman after reading about him in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where Gladwell discusses Ekman’s ability to “thin slice” human expression because he’s spent so many years studying the human face. I checked the book out from the library, but it’s definitely one I’d consider adding to my personal collection, because I’d like refer back to it from time to time, especially the sections on becoming more emotionally attentive — aware of what I’m feeling so I can control how I react to improve my relationships with others.

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Progress Report

So far this year, I’ve read 30 books, and many of them have been pretty light reading. I guess I’m quite a bit behind Bush. At this point, I’ve pretty much abandoned my New Years Reading List and gone off on wild tangents, which seems to be a commentary on my life in general somehow. And it’s probably a good thing.
Here’s the run-down so far:

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The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
by Gideon Defoe

Description from Amazon.com:

Not since Moby-Dick… No, not since Treasure Island… Actually, not since Jonah and the Whale has there been a sea saga to rival The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, featuring the greatest sea-faring hero of all time, the immortal Pirate Captain, who, although he lives for months at a time at sea, somehow manages to keep his beard silky and in good condition.
Worried that his pirates are growing bored with a life of winking at pretty native ladies and trying to stick enough jellyfish together to make a bouncy castle, the Pirate Captain decides it’s high time to spearhead an adventure.
While searching for some major pirate booty, he mistakenly attacks the young Charles Darwin’s Beagle and then leads his ragtag crew from the exotic Galapagos Islands to the fog-filled streets of Victorian London. There they encounter grisly murder, vanishing ladies, radioactive elephants, and the Holy Ghost himself. And that’s not even the half of it.

Of course I loved this book — it’s about Pirates. And as a bonus — monkeys!

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On Bullshit

On Bullshit
by Harry G. Frankfurt

A small, funny book I picked up at the library after the author was interviewed on the Daily Show – it’s a scholarly inquiry on the definition of “bullshit.” From the Amazon.com description:

“More pertinent is Frankfurt’s focus on intentions–the practice of bullshit, rather than its end result. Bullshitting, as he notes, is not exactly lying, and bullshit remains bullshit whether it’s true or false. The difference lies in the bullshitter’s complete disregard for whether what he’s saying corresponds to facts in the physical world: he ‘does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.'”

But Frankfurt notes another important point — part of the reason that there’s so much bullshit these days is that people are called upon to comment in depth on subjects that they don’t have expert knowledge of, so they bluff their way through.

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Sundown Towns

Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism
by James W. Loewen

I threw in the towel and bailed on reading this book in depth, which I’ve resolved not to feel bad about. I did skim a lot of it though. I’m a HUGE fan of sociologist Loewen’s books, and this one is good, but I wasn’t as riveted to the material as I was when reading Lies my Teacher Told Me or Lies Across America.

Loewen likes to write history books about subjects that Americans prefer to gloss over, forget or try to put into the past without resolving, and this book certainly fits that theme. Sundown Towns were thousands of small rural towns, usually in the north and midwest, that did not allow black residents, and even posted signs warning blacks to “Not the the sun go down on them” in that town. This began after the civil war during reconstruction, and continued in an overt fashion until at least the sixties, with the fallout continuing on until the present day. Residents routinely created the all-white towns by driving out blacks through lynchings or mob violence, and enforced the sundown rules informally by intimidation or formally by town ordinances.

Part of what made me resist reading the book is that it’s similar in subject matter to the Indiana-themed book Our Town: A Heartland Lynching, a Haunted Town, and the Hidden History of White America, which I read and reviewed for IndyScribe. Our Town covers a particular rural Indiana town and its issues with race, while Sundown Towns covers a lot of ground.

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Don’t I know you?

Don’t I know you?
by Karen Shepard

FICTION – A mystery/thriller set in 1976 Manhattan about a woman, Gina Engel, who is murdered in her own apartment and discovered by her 12-year-old son Stephen. He narrates the first part of the story as he deals with his grief and tries to piece together anything he might know about the killer while his whole world turns upside down. The narrative is picked up by two women with seemingly remote connections to the crime, who drop puzzle pieces into place over the next decade about the identity of the murderer. From Amazon.com: “Shepard’s vision of how a murder’s effect reverberates outward inspires us to understand the limitations of intimate knowledge and the extraordinary capacities of the people we think we know best, even as it shows us how we repair those bonds and prepare ourselves to go on.”

It a very quick read, (I finished it in an afternoon) but not a throw-away mass-market thriller. It’s gripping and when you finally figure out whodunnit (probably) you walk away both satisfied and disturbed.

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“Cloud Atlas” and “The Whole World Over”

I haven’t much time to write a coherent review of each of these books, so I’m going to crib from Amazon to describe the plots. Sorry for that….

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
“… Mitchell’s third novel weaves history, science, suspense, humor and pathos through six separate but loosely related narratives…. this latest foray relies on a kaleidoscopic plot structure that showcases the author’s stylistic virtuosity. Each of the narratives is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book. Among the volume’s most engaging story lines is a witty 1930s-era chronicle, via letters, of a young musician’s effort to become an amanuensis for a renowned, blind composer and a hilarious account of a modern-day vanity publisher who is institutionalized by a stroke and plans a madcap escape in order to return to his literary empire (such as it is).”

As clever as the nested, interwoven stories were, I wasn’t completely engaged while I read them, and I ended the book disappointed. It’s a neat literary trick, and I admit a nice commentary on the human condition — despite the differences in the stories, the conceits and foibles of humankind are the same throughout, ultimately leading to the end of civilization — but it was an awfully disheartening story to read.

The Whole World Over
by Julia Glass
“In her second rich, subtle novel, Glass reveals how the past impinges on the present, and how small incidents of fate and chance determine the future. Greenie Duquette has a small bakery in Manhattan’s West Village that supplies pastries to restaurants, including that of her genial gay friend Walter. When Walter recommends Greenie to the governor of New Mexico, she seizes the chance to become the Southwesterner’s pastry chef and to take a break from her marriage to Alan Glazier, a psychiatrist with hidden issues.”

It’s rare to read a mainstream novel that treats gay characters in a real, sympathetic way as fully-realized human beings and not plot points or commentary on the heterosexual narrative, and I really loved this book for that reason. Her characters are very richly drawn, which is also one of the things I love in fiction. There are times when character’s motivations seemed to shift with no concrete explanation, but not so much that the quality of the story was lost. In all it was a relatively light but pleasing book.

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Mini Book Reviews

I, Robot
Isaac Asimov
The classic sci-fi set of short stories by Asimov about Robots and their relationship to man. Asmimov sets out the famous “Three Laws of Robotics” that have influenced much science fiction writing since the stories were originally published in the 1940’s in sci-fi magazines, and then collected in this book published in 1950. I haven’t seen the Will Smith movie of the same name, yet, but from what I understand, it’s quite different than the Asimov stories and is only “influenced by.”

1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Interesting that the stories, written in the 1940s, are set in 1996-2006 or so. Their expectations of technological advances are beyond what we’ve accomplished, but at the same time fail to anticipate some of our technology — like the internet. The influence of these stories on all science fiction that came after is fascinating; they really are the foundation for everything from Terminator to Battlestar Galactica, to dystopian fantasies of post-apocalypse futures.

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection
by Michael Chabon
Michael Chabon produces a melancholy Sherlock Holmes homage, portraying the Victorian age hero at the end of his life in 1944 Sussex, having retired from London to keep bees in the quiet countryside. Holmes gets caught up in the mystery of a lost parrot and a young mute Jewish refugee boy who was rescued from Hitler’s path.

Black Swan Green
David Mitchell
Mitchell’s fourth novel veers away from the complex literary structures of his previous work, to portray a simple but profound narrative of a 13-year-old boy’s life over the course of 13 months — one story each month, describing Jason Taylor’s struggle with a speech impediment, navigation of the complex social structures at his school, his interest in girls, exploration of the town and woods around his home, and the break up of his parents marriage.

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Mini Book Reviews

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
by Melanie Rehak
A great exploration of the history of the popular girl detective novels and the women who wrote them. I learned a couple of surprising things — that Nancy Drew was far and away the most popular of the Stratmeyer Syndicate’s kid book series, blowing away the Hardy Boys by a mile. I was also surprised to learn how much the Syndicate actually contributed to the novels. I was always under the impression that the ghostwriters, like Mildred Wirt Benson, got a raw deal because they wrote all the books but never got credit. But in reality the writing was more of a collaboration between the Syndicate (which was primarily Harriet Stratemeyer Adams) who created all the characters and wrote detailed plots; and the ghostwriters, who filled in the details and dialog. That’s kinda cool — I’m terrible at working out a plot, but I can write great scenes and dialog.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell
Re-read this after a quick read last year.

Deception Point
by Dan Brown
A fun mindless thriller that was entertaining and relaxing.

The Time Traveler’s Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
I loved this complex novel about a man with a genetic mutation that causes him to be thrown backward and forward through time. Far from a fun or interesting quirk, his time travel is distressing and difficult — he can’t take anything with him; not even the fillings in his teeth. He can’t control where or when he goes, but shows up at various points in his own life, especially at traumatic events. But he also gets thrown back to visit his future wife when she was a child, beginning a romance that transcends time.

The Seven Daughters of Eve
by Bryan Sykes
A great science novel that’s not too intense or boring. Sykes is a Oxford scholar and human geneticist that has discovered a way to trace, through DNA, our matrilinial ancestry.

What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
by Thomas Frank
I just started this, and it’s shaping up to be an entertaining and interesting read.

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Books I’ve Read Recently

The Nanny Diaries
by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
I enjoyed this light, comic novel as a easy summer reading book. I have to admit being frustrated by the level to which “Nanny” — the young female protagonist — put up with the crap of the Manhattan family that hired her to take care of their son. Any reasonable person would have walked away from the employment situation, so it’s hard to suspend disbelief at some of the plot points. But it was a fun peek into a society I don’t have access to.
A better summary from Amazon: “The Nanny Diaries is an absolutely addictive peek into the utterly weird world of child rearing in the upper reaches of Manhattan’s social strata. Cowritten by two former nannies, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, the novel follows the adventures of the aptly named Nan as she negotiates the Byzantine byways of working for Mrs. X, a Park Avenue mommy.”

The Watchmen (Absolute Edition)
by Alan Moore
Unfortunately, I don’t time to write a review that would do this book justice, because it deserves a couple pages of thoughful analysis and philosophical examination. It’s an extraordinary graphic novel, written in the 1980s that still resonates in today’s political and social sphere. The author — Alan Moore — also wrote the graphic novel V for Vendetta, which was recently made into a movie (although he disavows any association with the film version). The watchmen is the story of a couple of generations of masked crime fighters, set in real cold war America in the 1980s. Unlike the primary-colored superheroes that we’re all familiar with, these complext heroes explore the moral ambiguity of vigilantism and of society itself.
I bought this after reading an Entertainment Weekly review that quoted some of my favorite writers and television producers (Neil Gaiman, Joss Whedon, the producers of Lost) as saying it was an enormous influence on them, and the influences are clear. One of my favorite things about both Whedon’s stories and about Lost are the subtle plot details that pop out on second and third viewings — a technique that’s used to extraordinary effect in The Watchmen.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design
by Raph Koster
I need to re-read this book to write a good review of it, and to really grasp what I read. That isn’t the fault of the book at all; it was great. It’s entirely on me that I didn’t get a complete picture because my free time to read has been so scattered lately, and it’s difficult to put a book down and pick it back up and remember where I was. I’m going to go over this book again after I finish reading the book I’m currently enjoying, which is:

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her
Melanie Rehak
I’ll write up a full-scale review of this book when I’m done with it, because I’m thoroughly enjoying reading this great book about one of my childhood role models.

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