The value of eyebrows

The variety of shifts in the eyebrows fashion trends is well-known. Men and women of Ancient Egypt, Asia, Russia, and Western Europe shaved them off completely and drew new ones, made them aggressively black or, on the contrary, bleached and even “extended” them with pieces of mouse skin…

Why do we pay so much attention to the eyebrows? Besides the protective function against perspiration and dust, eyebrows also serve for emotional expression and nonverbal communication. It is not surprising that cartoonists are exploiting the expressive power of the eyebrows to convey emotions.

Each emotional expression sets in motion the variety of brows’ musculature. In the laboratory of Moscow State University of Psychology and Education an experiment was conducted: after the form of eyebrows on the photographs was changed, participants saw that the expression of people’s eyes in photographs has changed also.


Photo by Valeria Barchenko

Across the human history, many scientists were interested in the role of eyebrows as facial expression features. Charles Darwin was studying facial expressions, but after some time it ceased to be important for scientist’s attention.

For some time, there weren’t any serious developments in the theme of emotion’s reflection, until it was deeply explored by well-known Paul Ekman. Ekman, who teaches us to recognize lies in all its forms, is the inspirer of the TV series “Lie to me”, and he also served as a prototype of its main character.

Ekman is the author of facial-expression analysis, the world’s leading specialist, who examines facial actions and emotional signals in different cultures, facial mechanics, deliberate and automatic actions, how we hide or demonstrate our emotions. Paul Ekman proved that despite cross-cultural differences and traditions the facial expressions are universal, common to any human culture. Having investigated and scrutinized all the collected data for years, he formulated Facial Action Coding System.

Ekman identifies 6 basic emotions: surprise, anger, fear, happiness, sadness, and disgust.

These emotions can be reflected by a single action or by a complex of actions depending on a number of muscles involved. The scientist had recited 10000 of faces – he started cataloging them in the 1970-ies.

Our eyebrows show a lot of conversational signals and can express the whole range of human emotions. One raised eyebrow is a sign of skepticism or confusion, both raised eyebrows indicate surprise or fear, and lowered eyebrows shows disappointment or anger. We should note that eyebrows’ actions represent innate skills. It can be simply proven with the examples of interviews of children blind from birth. Although they have never seen the facial gestures of other people, they can reproduce them easily.

While trying to fully understand the role of eyebrows in face recognition, the scientists suggested that the diversity in the appearance of eyebrows and their configuration is relative to the variety of hairlines and eyes. The thickness of the eyebrows, the shape and color can give us some information about age, health, and social status of their owner.


photos by Anna-Florence FERRARIO

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