Universal Emotions Reveal the True Story

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert recently revealed the effects of drastic surgery to remove his jaw due to complications from thyroid cancer. The surgery left the lower half of his face drawn into a permanent smile, unable to form other expressions. Prior to Roger's dramatic transformation, treatments of similar bouts of cancer robbed him of his ability to speak. While he's been communicating verbally with the aid of a computerized voice, he's lost the nonverbal components of speech such as tonality and inflection, further exacerbating his nonverbal communication woes. Recently, Roger sat down with Oprah Winfrey to talk about how his life has changed.

Posted on | Janine Driver | Comments ()

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert recently revealed the effects of drastic surgery to remove his jaw due to complications from thyroid cancer. The surgery left the lower half of his face drawn into a permanent smile, unable to form other expressions. Prior to Roger's dramatic transformation, treatments of similar bouts of cancer robbed him of his ability to speak. While he's been communicating verbally with the aid of a computerized voice, he's lost the nonverbal components of speech such as tonality and inflection, further exacerbating his nonverbal communication woes. Recently, Roger sat down with Oprah Winfrey to talk about how his life has changed. 


Although Roger can no longer use the variables of his voice and the lower half of his face to convey emotion, he still communicates nonverbally using his eyes, hand gestures, and other body language. For his interview with Oprah, he had pre-typed responses to the prepared questions she would ask him so he would not have to type his answers on the spot. While he played these responses, his body language was just as any talk show guest's would be-he used gestures to accompany his words, gave Oprah eye contact, and often looked into the crowd to engage them. When Oprah asks if he is done with surgery, his prepared answer is that yes, he is done. He touches his mouth as the computer voice talks about the surgeries that he could have, that they would be purely cosmetic from here on. As he shakes his head, he says he does not want to go through more painful surgeries. No one looks perfect, Roger explains, at some point you need to make peace with how you look and move on with life.


Roger's loss of some components of nonverbal communication highlights how important others are. At one point, Oprah commends his wife, Chaz, for being there for him through all of his difficulties and fighting tirelessly to keep him alive, calling her "incredible." He looks at Chaz with a loving smile on his face, while he nods in agreement and takes her hand in his. If you happened to see this part of the interview, you probably could just "tell" that his smile was real somehow, even though his mouth never changed shape at all. That's because, in a way, we smile more with our eyes than our mouths.


Dr. Paul Ekman, a psychologist and authority on facial expressions, has found a reliable and universal distinction between a fake and real smile. Although Roger lost the bottom half of his jaw, he is still able to display the genuine or "Duchenne" smile. In both a Duchenne and non-Duchenne smile, the zygomatic major is contracted, raising the corners of the mouth. However, only in a Duchenne smile does the obicularis oculi contract, raising the cheeks and forms "crow's feet" around the eyes. If your intuition says a smile is genuine, chances are you're reading it in the eyes.


Through his charting of the facial muscles, Dr. Ekman has also documented 7 universal emotions – happiness, sadness, fear, contempt, disgust, anger, and surprise – exhibited on the human face by specific combinations of muscle contractions. One of the most expressive areas on the face, and one that Roger still has use of, is the eyebrows. For example, when someone feels sadness, the inner eyebrows will raise up and come together in the middle. You can see this movement in Roger's, Chaz's, and Oprah's faces throughout the interview.

Blog written by Janine Driver
Janine Driver is the New York Times best-selling authorof YOU SAY MORE THAN YOU THINK: A 7-Day Plan on Using the New Body...