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Is your face an open book?

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When you smile, you're probably happy. When you frown, you're probably not. Don't thank us for the information. We're all indebted for this frontiers-of-knowledge bulletin to Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California.

Well, to be perfectly fair, it's not as simple as that.Nothing ever is. In fact, Professor Ekman has spent 10 years breaking down the human face into a potential of 7,000 expressions, 14 of which he mugs on the pages of the current psychology Today. His mouth optimistically curves up. His mouth glumly curves down. His nose flares in disgust. Or is it contempt? His eyebrows arch to signal everything from bewilderment to amazement. We think.

But then things get really ambiguous. Are the Ekman eyes bulging in anger or in fear? Or perhaps he's trying to hypnotize us into accepting his theories. At any rate, it's enough to drive a caption-writer crazy -- which could be a fourth alternative.

Maybe it's Professor Ekman's fault as a mime. Maybe we're functionally illiterate as a reader of emotions. In any case, we've always been skeptical about people who claim your face is an open book, and we certainly curl our lip in our version of doubt at Professor Ekman's notion that one can devise a "Facial Action Coding System."

It has been our experience from earliest childhood that one man's grin is another man's grimace -- and in the face of Humphrey Bogart it could be both. We vividly recall a kindergarten classmate whose round ruddy cheeks shouted "Jolly lad!" at you. In fact, he was, for five years old, a regular little Hamlet, a real brooder. Nothing he could do with his face expressed what he felt; he was a tragedian imprisoned in a clown's mask. When he cried, the tears ran down cheeks creased in a permament smile.

On the other hand, the clown of the playground was a hollow-faced little fellow with mournful dark eyes who looked a bit like Buster Keaton. He was almost as funny, even though his very hair looked sad.


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