Article abstract

Nature Neuroscience 11, 843 - 850 (2008)
Published online: 15 June 2008 | doi:10.1038/nn.2138

Expressing fear enhances sensory acquisition

Joshua M Susskind1, Daniel H Lee1, Andrée Cusi1, Roman Feiman1, Wojtek Grabski1 & Adam K Anderson1,2

It has been proposed that facial expression production originates in sensory regulation. Here we demonstrate that facial expressions of fear are configured to enhance sensory acquisition. A statistical model of expression appearance revealed that fear and disgust expressions have opposite shape and surface reflectance features. We hypothesized that this reflects a fundamental antagonism serving to augment versus diminish sensory exposure. In keeping with this hypothesis, when subjects posed expressions of fear, they had a subjectively larger visual field, faster eye movements during target localization and an increase in nasal volume and air velocity during inspiration. The opposite pattern was found for disgust. Fear may therefore work to enhance perception, whereas disgust dampens it. These convergent results provide support for the Darwinian hypothesis that facial expressions are not arbitrary configurations for social communication, but rather, expressions may have originated in altering the sensory interface with the physical world.

  1. Department of Psychology, University of Toronto, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3G3, Canada.
  2. Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, Toronto, Ontario M6A 2E1, Canada.

Correspondence to: Joshua M Susskind1 e-mail:

Correspondence to: Adam K Anderson1,2 e-mail:


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