The Nature Of The Facial Muscles

Everyone's face is continually reshaped in response to different moods and impulses. Watch people in conversation; their faces are rarely at rest. Their features respond as they listen and accompany their voices as they speak. The fact that we are capable of so much communication with our faces is a great help in our lives as social creatures. Those around us can share in our pleasure when they see us smile or be moved to cheer us up when they see we are sad.

Our faces are as expressive as they are because of a complex group of tiny, thread-like muscles: the muscles of expression. There is a network of these muscles running beneath the surface of the face, as thin and refined as a spider's web. By their movements, these muscles can totally alter the way a face appears. Though these are relatively small and weak muscles, they are attached so close to the surface of the skin that a modest movement of muscle fiber often translates into a big movement of skin. Certain of these muscular movements are recognized as reflections of emotional states. These are the facial expressions.

I was once explaining the nature of the muscles of expression to someone, and he pointed to his cheek in surprise, "You mean its not all muscle in there?" His question made sense. Look at someone's arm or calf, and much of the bulk of what you see is the musculature underneath the skin. Take away the muscles, and there wouldn't be much left. On the other hand, take away the facial muscles, and the face would probably look more or less the same. The facial muscles are virtually the only muscles on the body that have no real form of their own.

Some Predecessors: Leonardo and Darwin_

The way the facial muscles are mixed in with everything else under the skin made life very difficult for early anatomists trying to map out the muscles of the face. The famous anatomy of Ves-alius, published in the late 1500s, shows the facial muscles in a vague and misleading way. Other muscular systems of the body, larger and easier to dissect, were more accurately portrayed.

Nearly a century earlier, another pioneer anatomist had patiently explored and diagrammed the facial muscles in beautiful, accurate drawings. But the anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, like so much of his scientific and artistic work, were by the time of Ves-alius scattered in private collections and unknown to the world at large. The anatomical text Leonardo intended to publish had never been realized.

From my own experience, I know how excruciatingly patient one must be to explore the anatomy of the face. It's much like trying to extract the threads of just one color from a complicated tapestry. In Leonardo's case, the result of all his meticulous effort was not just anatomical drawings. The men in his battle scenes, just like the women in his portraits, have faces more real, and more alive, than any that had appeared in painting before. Science in the service of art led to a mastery of expression.

Though Leonardo and others had mapped out the facial muscles, the function of the various muscles were not well understood until the nineteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, Duchenne of Boulogne found that slight electrical jolts to various points on the face caused the muscles to contract individually. His photographs of electrically-induced smiles and snarls are both strange and compelling; his descriptions of which muscles do what, an important advance.

The question of why we smile and snarl was addressed by a man more famous for his work in another field. Charles Darwin's book on facial expression, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals (1872), remains to this day probably the single best book on the subject. Making use of the work of Duchenne and others, Darwin speculated about why we make the faces we do and whether they are specific or universal. (In recent times there has been a resurgence of interest in facial expression, led not by artists or anatomists but by psychologists interested in the realm of nonverbal communication. )

Davinci Anatomical Drawings

The earliest known drawings of the muscles of expression were those found among the anatom ical studies of Leonardo Da Vinci. Leonardo is also the first artist we know of whose sketchbooks and paintings reveal a concern for portraying the range of emotions seen on the face. But even for Leonardo, mysteries may have remained. The two studies—of deeper and more superficial muscles of expression—lack a clear indication of the corrugator, one of the chief muscles of sorrow and anger. Clearly indicated, however, are muscles of disgust (A) and smiling (B). It took other anatomists almost two centuries to match these drawings.

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