Monday, August 19, 2013


I routinely watch Steve Kornacki’s show Up on MSNBC on Sunday mornings. This past Sunday I notice how intently one guest watches the other guest when they are talking. Their attention is so intently focused on the talker that it calls attention the fact that they are doing it, especially when the guests are setting next to one another. This made me recall a book I read sometime ago.

I found a book What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell (Little Brown and Co, New York, 2009) on my book shelve put there by my wife and one of my daughters over a year ago. As often happens, I ran out of things to read so I picked it up. The content pleasantly surprised me but especially the title essay, which was What the Dog Saw: Cesar Millan and the Movement of Mastery. This essay was about a remarkable individual who has remarkable ability to communicate with dogs. I had watched his TV Show, which I think some National Geographic producer called the Dog Whisperer, a knock off title from the famed Horse Whisperer, a man who could communicate with horses. The author talked about a range of people including anthropologists and professional dancers who analyzed Cesar’s facial expression and movements and they collectively agreed that he communicates with dogs by his body movements as well as his facial expressions. He has honed an innate talent into a skill.

Psychologists have studied emotions and facial expression associated with them. It turns out that is strong evidence that facial expressions and the seven emotions are universal, like universal cultural traits. There are seven emotions that have associated the universal facial expressions of seven emotions—anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. There is scientific evidence that dogs can “read” human facial expressions and interpret body movement. Nuanced in the writing was the implication that dogs an I assume other animals such as cats and horse, can read subtleties in these expression—micro expression—not only human expression but also expressions made by each other.

Psychologists have studied this phenomenon and discovered these micro-expressions. can last for as short as 0.5 seconds but often much longer. Two scientists, +David Matsumoto and +Hyi Sung Hwang, have published some of this information (+Psychological Science Agenda: May 2011) and have put together a class where they teach people how to refine the “reading” these expressions.

Because of my interest in evolutionary psychology, it fascinated me to see this information discussed from several points of view. Of course, the obvious is that emotions are genetic should be accepted as fact and should be taken as evidence of the validity of evolutionary psychology as a science. In addition, that reading emotions is universal, adds credibility to it being innate. That reading emotion and body movements is innate in humans, dogs and horse and presumable other animals, means the ability is genetically well conserved. Together, this means it is adaptive behavior resulting from natural selection; therefore, contributed to survival in some meaningful way.

The rapt attention one guests on Steve Kornacki’s show pays to another means to me that they are subconsciously using their innate ability to interact with each other. It is subconscious because it is highly unlikely that the guests have taken the class in micro-expression. What Dr. Matsumoto and Sung Hwang are doing in their classes is raising this unconsciousness to the conscious level—teaching us what dogs and horses already know but do not talk about because they, like the people who have not taken the course, they can’t. They are teaching us to be human whisperers.

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