Tatiana Ayazo /RD Recognizing facial expressions is a crucial part of emotional IQ, although there could be such a thing as too much emotional intelligence. The origin of facial expressions can help us understand what they signify, according to researcher Daniel Lee of the University of Colorado Boulder. His theory is that expressions evolved for functional reasons first, to gain information about our surroundings to increase our chances of survival. Wide eyes when we’re afraid, for example, help us take in more visual stimuli, like a camera lens opening. “Fear prioritizes sensitivity—getting more information,” Lee says. “Wide eyes that enhance sensitivity for the expresser transmits information sensitivity to the receiver.” Lee has published evidence that this expression was socially co-opted—it became a signal to others—from its sensory-gathering origins.
An open mouth
Tatiana Ayazo /RD When you see jaw-dropping photos of the most beautiful country in the world, your mouth literally sags open. But why does this happen when we’re surprised or in awe? Although we may not associate these emotions with fear, they are also info-gathering expressions and have many of the same functions. “We found that fear expressions, including mouth stretching, are associated with increased air intake, which is related to gathering sensory information,” Lee says. Getting in more oxygen may have helped us prepare for fight or flight when we were surprised. As it became an emotion, vocalizing that air intake may have also communicated this surprise, he says.