Crowdsourcing Darwin’s experiment on human emotions

One of Charles Darwin’s lesser-known experiments, on the expression of emotion, is being re-run as an exercise in online crowdsourcing – and anyone can take part.

In 1868, Charles Darwin undertook a study to prove that humans, like animals, have an innate and universal set of emotional expressions – a code by which we understand each other’s feelings.

The Darwin Correspondence Project, which is working to publish and digitise thousands of the scientist’s letters, has recreated the experiment nearly 150 years later – to test his results, and draw attention to his contribution to psychology.

The experiment took place in the living room of Down House, Darwin’s country home in Kent, during a series of dinner parties from March to November 1868, where he asked guests for their responses to photographs of a man with his face frozen into a range of different positions.

This was followed by a questionnaire that was distributed around the world – one of the first questionnaires ever printed.

“Mr Darwin brought in some photographs taken by a Frenchman, galvanising certain muscles in an old man’s face, to see if we read aright [sic] the expression that putting such muscles in play should produce,” wrote one of the guests in a letter to her sister.

It was somewhat unscientific by modern standards, with no control group and a very small sample, but it was revolutionary for its time.

“It was typical of Darwin that he used what was to hand,” says Dr Alison Pearn of the Darwin Correspondence Project.

He used 11 black and white photographs originally taken by French anatomist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne, to examine the movement of facial muscles.

According to Duchenne, the subject was “an old, toothless, man with a thin face, whose appearance, without being precisely ugly, was more or less nondescript”. His “intelligence was limited”, he added.

Duchenne used electrodes to manipulate the muscles on the man’s face and contort them into various expressions.

While he appears to be in some pain, Darwin later wrote that the man was “little sensitive”, as he had a medical condition that left his face numb.

Source Accessed 6th July 2022

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