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Compassion, Darwin, facial expressions, the Dalai Lama – and counterterrorism?

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[1-11-10 update: Please note that due to unforeseen circumstances Paul Ekman's talk Thursday Jan. 14 has been postponed and will be rescheduled.]

What happens when the world's foremost expert on facial expressions teams up with the Dalai Lama?

Psychologist Paul Ekman, PhD, who will speak at Stanford Jan. 14 on the subject of “Compassion, Darwin and the Dalai Lama,” is widely known for his pioneering studies of the correlations between human emotions and facial expressions. The general public is invited to attend the roughly 90-minute lecture, which will kick off at 7 p.m. at Stanford's Cubberley Auditorium. No reservations are necessary.

Ekman, professor emeritus of psychology at UC San Francisco and author of numerous popular books, recently spent a couple of weeks discussing compassion with an expert on that subject - the Dalai Lama - which led to their co-authoring a book, as well as a new effort by Ekman to define the facial expressions associated with that emotional state.

Ekman has spoken of the “amazing coincidence” between evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin’s views on compassion and morality and those of Buddhism. In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that one of humankind’s noblest virtues “seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings.” When Ekman read that passage to the Dalai Lama, the latter responded, after a pause: “I am a Darwinian.”

Several decades ago, Ekman embarked on a global tour to study the facial expressions people form spontaneously when they are, for example, happy, sad, fearful, angry or disgusted. His findings - that facial expressions for particular emotions are invariant across widely separated cultures - overturned what had until then been considered an established paradigm, known as "cultural relativism": the Margaret Mead-sanctified shibboleth that virtually all human activity is completely shaped by culture, rather than hardwired.

Ekman delineated different combinations of facial muscles responsible for the expressions associated with several emotions, and showed how those muscles can involuntarily, if subtly, betray attempts to hide one’s emotional state. A facial-coding system Ekman since developed is now used in many applications including law enforcement and counterterrorism.

It's high time the United States government started adapting that application in earnest to screen for bad actors at airports (how'dya like them Israelis?) rather than shaking the rest of us upside down until our toothpaste tubes turn themselves in.

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