CEPI Curiosities: Duchenne’s Smiles

CEPI Curiosities: Tales from Medical History's Strange Side

Greetings and salutations, medico-historico enthusiasts and welcome to the latest installment of CEPI Curiosities, our regular look back at the thought-provoking and downright strange from the history of medicine. Past forays into the medically weird have included 1990s anti-drug PSAs, the famous Siamese Twins (Chang and Eng Bunker), and a physician who collected thousands of swallowed objects.

This month’s iteration is a continuation of our look from last month at physiognomy, the pseudoscience of divining evidence of one’s character by examining the physical dimensions of their face. As I enumerated upon last month, physiognomy, as with phrenology, was next to impossible to measure scientifically and, again as with phrenology, gradually fell out of favor. This time around we are going to take the science of faces from a different direction and examine some interesting, dare I say shocking, facial research. Today, it is my pleasure to introduce you to renowned faceologist (well, technically, French neurologist) Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne.

Duchenne was a pioneer in neurology. He was one of the first in his field to use electricity to study muscular anatomy, also known as myology, and was an early adopter of photography, using the new medium to record his experiments. Among his contributions to the field was his extensive research on the myology of the face, which he first published in his 1862 treatise The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression (TMHFE). One of the legacies of his research is a genuine smile (one where the sides of the mouth curl upward, the cheeks raise, and the eyes form crow’s feet) is known today as a Duchenne smile. A contemporary of the physiognomy movement, Duchenne was politely dismissive of Lavater’s conclusions, in part calling out the Swiss theologian for his silence on facial movement to say nothing of his lack of scientific credentials, writing:

Lavater devoted himself to the study of facial expression at rest, of physiognomy as such. His research was concerned with the difference between the combinations of contours and lines, the profiles and silhouettes that make up the static face. He certainly would not have neglected as much as he did of the study of facial expression in movement, which should serve as the basis for the examination of the physiognomy at rest, had he been either an anatomist or a physiologist or a doctor or even a naturalist. Duchenne The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression 4.

Rather than study the face to measure the temperament of the human soul, Duchenne focused on mapping the functions of human facial muscles to determine what specific muscles a person used to convey different expressions. This is where the mention of Duchenne’s dual interest in electricity and photography become important, because Duchenne drew his conclusions by shocking patients’ faces with electricity and photographing the results. Even Duchenne himself was aware his methodology might come as…er…shocking to his contemporaries, musing in the early pages of TMHFE: “No one thought that the study of myology could benefit from gross experiments by a physician who provoked convulsions on the faces of his tortured subjects using electrical currents” (Duchenne 10).

Between 1852 and 1856, Duchenne conducted his experiments on a series of live human subjects, including a young man, a nine-year-old girl, and an elderly woman. However, he performed the bulk of his tests on an elderly man with localized facial paralysis that left him with an inability to feel pain. Duchenne described him as an ideal candidate for this sort of experiment because “I could stimulate his individual muscles with as much precision, and accuracy as if I were working with a still irritable [responsive to stimuli] cadaver” (43). He had each subject convey a facial expression displaying one of several emotions, which he listed as attention, reflection, aggression, pain, joy, kindness, scorn, lasciviousness, sadness, crying, sniveling, surprise, and astonishment. Duchenne then recreated the expressions by subjecting parts of the patients’ faces to localized electric shocks. In both cases he photographed their visages, publishing 73 photographic plates in TMHFE.

What I find especially interesting about Duchenne’s work, aside from the whole zapping people’s faces part, is his photographs provide a contrast to what one typically expects from historic photography. Long exposure times and the novelty and highly specialized nature of photographic technology led many 19th century portraits to take on a serious, or downright somber, tone. The Civil War photography of Mathew Brady offers an example of the gravity of 19th century portraits and provides the glimpse most modern observers think about when they think of the 1800s.

1864 Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Matthew Brady; Source: National Archives and Records Administration

1864 Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Matthew Brady; Source: National Archives and Records Administration

By contrast, in Duchenne’s imagery, we see people in various stages of joy, fright, sarcasm, and downright silliness; something people tend to associate with more modern images.

To bring Duchenne into the present day, his work recently gained some popular attention during the 2016 US Presidential Election.  Richard E. Cytowic, a professor of neurology at George Washington University, observed during the Republican primaries that Texas Senator and Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz stood at a disadvantage among voters because he lacked a Duchenne smile.

Now, while physiognomy has been disproven, there is a natural response to attempt to ascertain a person’s character by looking at them. It is a practice frequently seen in visual-based fiction, such as movies, comic books, and cartoons, where facial characteristics are used as a visual shorthand for viewers (think about the last TV show or film you watched; were you able to tell who were the “good guys” and “bad guys” by simply looking at them). The same, in this particular case, goes for politics.

And that wraps up our look at physiognomy and the science of faces. Until next time, catch you on the strange side!