Why Do We Make Facial Expressions?

Are smiles universal?

With just a quick glance, it is usually pretty easy to determine how someone is feeling. Someone with a broad smile and sparkling eyes is probably feeling pretty happy, while someone with wide eyes, lifted eyebrows, and an open mouth is feeling surprised. It doesn't matter what country you're in or what language you speak, everyone understands these facial expressions. 

Why is that?

When it comes to something that applies to our entire species, it helps to look at it from an evolutionary perspective. Like so many other things relating to evolution, we need to go back to Charles Darwin to get the story from the beginning. 

Darwin published a book in 1872 called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal in which he noted that certain facial expressions seem to be universal across humankind, with some other primates making similar expressions as well. The idea wasn't well accepted at the time, but 20th century experiments eventually showed that there is something innate about facial expressions after all. 

As SciShow host Hank Green explains, the root cause of facial expressions probably wasn't to non-verbally communicate emotions. In fact, contorting our faces actually changes the way we sense the environment, which might even be an advantage in life-or-death situations. These facial cues may have also benefitted other members of an individual's group, providing a heads up for potential danger.

Prepare your face to look surprised and intrigued as you learn why we make facial expressions here: