The Human Facial Communication Array

Electrical stimulation of a patient, 1862. ©adoc-photos/Corbis

Humans are crazy about their faces. All this meat and sensory equipment on the front of our skull broadens our sense experience of the world, but we also come to think of this face as who we are. And if we want to change who we are, we change how that face is presented.

So we slather it in cosmetics. We grow strange beards. We pierce it, tattoo it and adorn it with a variety of fashion accessories. And in doing so, we forget that our face is also a communication array.

To a certain extent, that's an overstatement of the obvious. We all know it, right? The face is like a speaker, constantly blasting the world with a chorus of expressions and micro expressions. A 2008 Czech study found that facial expressions alone speak 1,000 words. To wear make-up, a mask, a beard or a pair of Humpty Hump Groucho glasses is to erode that facial vocabulary.

A 2012 study by a team of UCLA biologists recently pondered the evolution of the human face by looking at facial diversity in 129 adult male primates from Central and South America. Their findings suggested that the more solitary a species, the more wild, colorful and varied an individual's appearance within that species. Meanwhile, the more social primates were more plain-faced. Let's have a look at the wheel...

This image shows faces of adult male primates from Central and South America. Warmer colors indicate higher complexity in facial color patterns.
Stephen Nash

Does that sound backwards to you? It did to the researchers too. Wouldn't you expect members of a large, social primate society to gain an evolutionary advantage from standing out? Wouldn't it help you identify everyone in you pack?

Sure, but the plainer the face, the larger the facial vocabulary. The larger the facial vocabulary, the more effective communication within that society can be.

Which brings us back to humans -- an area the researchers plan to study in greater detail. Are the plain Janes and Joes among us better communicators than the punk rockers, Lady Gaga's and outrageously facial haired?

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.