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Pain. 2008 Mar;135(1-2):55-64. Epub 2007 Jun 20.

Recognition and discrimination of prototypical dynamic expressions of pain and emotions.

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  • 1Department of Clinical Psychology, Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany.


Facial expressions of pain and emotions provide powerful social signals, which impart information about a person's state. Unfortunately, research on pain and emotion expression has been conducted largely in parallel with few bridges allowing for direct comparison of the expressive displays and their impact on observers. Moreover, although facial expressions are highly dynamic, previous research has relied mainly on static photographs. Here we directly compare the recognition and discrimination of dynamic facial expressions of pain and basic emotions by naive observers. One-second film clips were recorded in eight actors displaying neutral facial expressions and expressions of pain and the basic emotions of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. Results based on the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) confirmed the distinct (and prototypical) configuration of pain and basic emotion expressions reported in previous studies. Volunteers' evaluations of those dynamic expressions on intensity, arousal and valence demonstrate the high sensitivity and specificity of the observers' judgement. Additional rating data further suggest that, for comparable expression intensity, pain is perceived as more arousing and more unpleasant. This study strongly supports the claim that the facial expression of pain is distinct from the expression of basic emotions. This set of dynamic facial expressions provides unique material to explore the psychological and neurobiological processes underlying the perception of pain expression, its impact on the observer, and its role in the regulation of social behaviour.

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