Understanding the evolution of human emotional communication through chimpanzee facial expressions

Coming from a graduate program where I had the opportunity to study humans as well as non-human animals, I sometimes became frustrated with the liberties that were (seemingly) allowed in research with humans, but not non-human animals. Namely the use of physiological markers (facial expressions in infants and young children) in identifying emotions. Emotion regulation studies have their fair share of critics just as behavioral research does, but as I sat through presentations with facial expressions being labeled as/associated with certain emotions, I couldn’t help but think about how unacceptable this would be if the subjects were non-human primates (that would have difficulty verbally expressing their feelings… just like infants and young tots).

As someone who believes facial expressions reveal important information (whether you’re human or not), you can imagine my excitement to see research involving a connection of facial expressions in human and non-human primates. An article from Yerkes National Primate Research Center newsroom, “Chimpanzee Facial Expressions Are Helping Researchers Understand Human Communication,” describes non-human primate facial expressions as complex and potentially helpful in understanding the evolution of human emotional communication.

Dr. Lisa Parr, Director of Yerkes National Primate Research Center Cognitive Testing Facility and Chimpanzee Core:

“This discovery is an important step to help researchers recognize facial movements and understand why they are important. While some expressions, such as a playful look, can be identified using a single feature, other expressions, such as when a chimp bares his teeth, require looking at numerous characteristics within the face, including the eyes and lips.”

“Sometimes it’s easy to read what people are feeling, but at other times, we have to look at multiple places on their faces. Ultimately, we want to better understand what people are feeling and expressing emotionally because it helps us empathize with one another.”

Parr created the Chimpanzee Facial Action Coding System in order to better examine the complex nature of facial expressions. Chimps were asked to examine and match 3D pictures of facial expressions. Sheila Sterk, Senior Animal Behavior Management Specialist elaborated on the process:

“After the chimpanzees matched similar images, we separated individual features of the original animated expression, such as a raised brow, by frame and pieced the frames back together to create a variation of the original expression. The chimpanzees then were asked to match the new expression to the original one. This is how we determined when the chimpanzees were using a single feature or if they needed more than one feature to match the similar expressions.”

(courtesy of Science Direct; photo credit to Yerkes National Primate Research Center)

Parr was scheduled to present the data of her research last weekend at the Mind of the Chimpanzee conference. I’m excited to read more about this research. If anyone sees any articles pop up, please spread the word.

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