Chaona Chen, Carlos Crivelli, Oliver G. B. Garrod, Philippe G. Schyns, José-Miguel Fernández-Dols, and Rachael E. Jack, Distinct facial expressions represent pain and pleasure across cultures, PNAS published ahead of print October 8, 2018 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1807862115.
Humans often use facial expressions to communicate social messages. However, observational studies report that people experiencing pain or orgasm produce facial expressions that are indistinguishable, which questions their role as an effective tool for communication. Here, we investigate this counterintuitive finding using a new data-driven approach to model the mental representations of facial expressions of pain and orgasm in individuals from two different cultures. Using complementary analyses, we show that representations of pain and orgasm are distinct in each culture. We also show that pain is represented with similar face movements across cultures, whereas orgasm shows differences. Our findings therefore inform understanding of the possible communicative role of facial expressions of pain and orgasm, and how culture could shape their representation.
Real-world studies show that the facial expressions produced during pain and orgasm—two different and intense affective experiences—are virtually indistinguishable. However, this finding is counterintuitive, because facial expressions are widely considered to be a powerful tool for social interaction. Consequently, debate continues as to whether the facial expressions of these extreme positive and negative affective states serve a communicative function. Here, we address this debate from a novel angle by modeling the mental representations of dynamic facial expressions of pain and orgasm in 40 observers in each of two cultures (Western, East Asian) using a data-driven method. Using a complementary approach of machine learning, an information-theoretic analysis, and a human perceptual discrimination task, we show that mental representations of pain and orgasm are physically and perceptually distinct in each culture. Cross-cultural comparisons also revealed that pain is represented by similar face movements across cultures, whereas orgasm showed distinct cultural accents. Together, our data show that mental representations of the facial expressions of pain and orgasm are distinct, which questions their nondiagnosticity and instead suggests they could be used for communicative purposes. Our results also highlight the potential role of cultural and perceptual factors in shaping the mental representation of these facial expressions. We discuss new research directions to further explore their relationship to the production of facial expressions.