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The Whippet #90: Facial expressions don't indicate emotions, you just imagine they do

McKinley Valentine — 10 min read

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So one of the standard questions on autism screening tests (such as this) is "I find it easy to work out what someone is thinking or feeling just by looking at their face."

I couldn't figure out how to answer this question. (For reference I don't have autism but do have ADHD; there's some overlap.) Because I do find it fairly easy to know what someone is feeling - I don't really have problems with emotional relating. But I don't do it by looking at someone's face. I do it by a combination of putting out conversational feelers and making extremely obvious guesses. Like, your cat just died, I predict you're feeling sad, I must be a fucken emotional savant. Or if someone has quit their job, they might feel a bit relieved and a bit sad at the same time.

But this is just logic, I don't get it from looking at their faces. According to the test, this slides me further towards the autism side of the spectrum.

Except that, actually, evidence suggests that no one can tell what someone else is feeling by looking at their facial expressions. Sometimes people interpret a neutral face as hostility ("resting bitch face"). Or blankness as bored / not paying attention when actually it's "doing nothing with my face because I'm focused on the speaker". Not to mention cultural differences (Americans smile even when they are not feeling particularly happy or affectionate towards someone.)

From this research paper:

"The question we really asked is: 'Can we truly detect emotion from facial articulations?'" said Aleix Martinez, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at The Ohio State University.

"And the basic conclusion is, no, you can't."

"In one experiment, Martinez showed study participants a picture cropped to display just a man's face. The man's mouth is open in an apparent scream; his face is bright red.

"When people looked at it, they would think, wow, this guy is super annoyed, or really mad at something, that he's angry and shouting," Martinez said. "But when participants saw the whole image, they saw that it was a soccer player who was celebrating a goal."

So, in fact, no one can tell what someone is feeling from their face. So that's not a difference between neurotypical people and autistic people. The difference, apparently, is whether you hold the false belief that you can.

Neurotypical people are probably using the same mix of context clues and guesswork that I use, but they are misattributing their knowledge to visual input.

(It is probably different if you know someone really well, but even then it can be hard to say if their face is reacting to what you said or an internal thought. Like have you ever accidentally given a stranger a real mean glare because you were thinking about something annoying when they crossed your line of sight?)

(Also, clearly some autistic people DO have trouble guessing what others are feeling. But facial expressions aren't the missing piece of the puzzle.)

You will notice gossip mags will do this error really egregiously. They'll show a photo of a celebrity looking upset and say it's proof that her marriage is falling apart, when really she just remembered she forgot to buy milk.

People on twitter are always isolating shots of the audience when someone gives a speech and then interpreting it like they're meaningful - here's a random example, but there's a million of them. These are just listening faces. You cannot tell how these people are feeling in response to Tom Hiddleston's speech. People think they can, but it's because they're drawing from context. Just like I think my friend is sad because I would be sad if my cat died, this person is using their own feelings about Tom Hiddleston's speech as the context for how others are likely reacting. In other words, it's projection. They think they're reading another's emotions, but they're just projecting their own emotions onto other people. (As I am doing with my guess about the cat! I'm no better at reading emotions than that twitter person is, I'm just more likely to be correct because people's feelings about a pet dying are easier to predict than Hollywood actors' feelings about Tom Hiddleston's speech.) (I haven't heard the speech, starting to feel like I should now.)

Anyway, everyone stop thinking you can read minds and just ask what people are feeling or listen to their words or actions.

A RASTRUM is a multi-nibbed pen used to draw the five lines of a musical stave simultaneously

It literally means ‘rake’ in Latin.

via Haggard Hawks on twitter, who always posts cool words, usually archaic.

Another one:
"The German word ERKLÄRUNGSNOT refers to a moment in which you have been caught in a situation requiring an urgent explanation, but cannot find the words to account for your actions. It literally means ‘explanation poverty’."

Why Baby Jesus looks like an ugly old man in medieval paintings

Firstly, contemporary Western culture is obsessed with a) realism and b) thinking people from previous centuries are idiots, so we tend to think inaccurate art from that time meant they were bad at drawing or didn't know what things looked like, rather than just being a deliberate style.

This is like people who comment on articles to tell the writer "you left out x" as though it was a mistake instead of a considered choice. But further:

Medieval concepts of Jesus were deeply influenced by the homunculus, which literally means little man. "There's the idea that Jesus was perfectly formed and unchanged," Averett says, "and if you combine that with Byzantine painting, it became a standard way to depict Jesus. In some of these images, it looks like he had male pattern baldness."

In other words, to show Jesus as a normal baby (not an adult) would be to imply that Jesus changed. And if Jesus changed, that would have to mean that he wasn't always perfect, because why would something perfect need to change? So the old man babies symbolise Jesus' perfection.

More info at Vox

God painting religious art sounds stressful. Imagine getting the brief: "Okay so it has to show that Our Lord is perfect. Just make it objectively perfect."


Cats + statues

perfect babies for real this time

via Christopher McKitterick on Tumblr. A few more here.

You don't do certain things because you're 'that type of person' - you're that type of person because of the things you do

This is an incredible article that is way more valuable and interesting than I convey in a summary.

"This idea — that who you are abides somehow outside of what you do — is the defining fantasy of our culture, and it appeals particularly to children. The world of the middle-schooler is a world of types. My son talks incessantly about VSCO girls and Karens and other categories of people he has learned about from YouTube. He described a classmate as “the kind of person who borrows your pencil and doesn’t give it back,” i.e. she borrowed his pencil and didn’t give it back. For a while he tried to propagate a type of his own invention, “the Suzan,” whose behavior was ill-defined but tracked closely with that of my mother of the same name. It did not catch on, and eventually he concluded that he was not the kind of person who could come up with memes."

It fits with so much that causes problems in our culture. Like, if you call a politician sexist because their policies disproportionately hurt women, that politician's family will say, "you don't know him. He isn't sexist at all." As though 'sexist' is a personality trait separate from their actual behaviours.

And it's really easy to do about yourself. Below, I describe myself as a messy person, because I find it hard to keep my space clean, and I need a lot of strategies to manage it. But if those strategies are working... then am I really a messy person? It's not the right way to think about it. Read the article.

Etymology of 'khaki'

It struck me the other day that 'khaki' is very clearly not an Anglo-origin word, so I googled it.

Khak is the Persian word for dust; khaki means dust-coloured.

My life is better for knowing this, I hope yours is too.

Unsolicited Advice

How to put things where you won't lose them and other tips for naturally messy people

"If you are looking for something in your house, and you finally find it, when you’re done with it, don’t put it back where you found it. Put it back where you first looked for it." That should be its home, because that aligns with your natural instincts. (This piece of advice is from Recomendo, a newsletter that's just... recommended things. Sometimes advice, sometimes apps, sometimes products. I bought a really comfy pair of sandals on their advice as well. Subscribe here.)

My biggest disorganised-person tip is to make your systems work for your own idiosyncratic brain, instead of trying to get your brain to be sensible. Store your glasses in the fridge next to the milk if that's the only way you can stop losing them. Stop telling yourself you "should" be able to train yourself to leave them in the Sensible Glasses Spot.

Tip 2: Lots of small drawers (use drawer inserts or cardboard package boxes to make big drawers smaller). That way every category of item has its own drawer. My clothes drawers are all tiny. (If you have a wardrobe: put some cheap bookshelves in there and then put open shoeboxes on the bookshelves.) They have between 2 and 4 items in them each. So it's impossible to struggle to find something in a drawer, because I go to the tank top drawer, and there's two black ones and a grey one, and that's easy. Or the "midi skirts that work with tights" drawer (contains 2 skirts). And if you don't pull everything out of the drawer because you're in a rush, then you don't end up with clothes all over the floor, starting a messiness death spiral. (If your clothing messiness death spiral starts because of taking off clothes you wore that day, you need a basket or drawer just for those, in addition to a laundry hamper.)

It also means that putting your clothes away stops being overwhelming, because everything has an extremely obvious place it belongs. It's a no-brainer, so you can do it when your brain is not co-operating.

Tip 3: Label everything. I mean every container and drawer and jar.

It's basically about making a system that will work for you when you're incredibly tired and stressed, that is just an absolute no-brainer. When you're folding and putting away clothes - that's when you're at your most tidy-minded. (If you weren't, you wouldn't be folding clothes, you would be leaving them in the washing basket another day.) And your tidy mind likes things to look nice but really is terrible at imagining what it will be like for future rushed-and-stressed you.

This stuff has massive flow-on impacts. If your stuff is messy - you're late because you can't find stuff. You start getting dressed but you can't find the top that goes with that skirt, so you have to wear a different skirt and then figure out what top would go with it, and it quadruples the cognitive load of getting dressed. You break things because you step on them because you didn't see them. You don't exercise because you can't find your workout clothes, or when you do find them you realise they need washing. And each one of those mistakes makes you feel more stressed, and being stressed makes you clumsy and forgetful so you make more mistakes. You feel weird because you're not wearing what you originally planned to, and because you're focused on that, you forget to bring the Crucial Item you needed for work that day.

People who think unpunctual people are overly laid back and relaxed about time should see me in the 10-20 minutes before leaving the house. I imagine it's anxiety-inducing just to watch. I have an app on my phone that says the time out loud every 2 minutes to help keep me on track. (Speaking clock: recommended if you're easily distracted and have a poor sense of time. You can change the intervals.)

Tip 4: What would make it childishly easy for you? Like just really overkill (see above: labels).

Tip 5: “Get rid of things or you'll spend your whole life tidying up” — Marguerite Duras

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email. (People I haven't replied to yet: I will! I've read your email and thought about it but just not responded yet.)

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