Emotions are the key to human interaction. They make up how we express ourselves and how we interpret others. When you stop to think about it, emotion is one of the few things that is truly universal. For example, I can watch a movie in a foreign language, but I can still tell when the characters are happy or distressed even though I don't have any clues from the dialogue.
But why? Why aren't people's facial expressions just as diverse as their languages or customs? According to Paul Ekman, the reason is because there are 6 basic emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust) that are inherent in all humans. So when our eyes widen, our lips part, and our eyebrows raise, everyone recognizes this combination as that of fear. It doesn't matter if someone knows the context that this fear stems from, and it doesn't matter if someone understands what we just said, everyone from New York to New Delhi will understand the basic idea.
In a way, this idea has been supported by the (now outdated) practice of galvanism. By stimulating muscles in the face, Italian scientist Luigi Galvani created very vivid emotions using electrical currents. This could suggest that our facial expressions are more of a reflex than a learned behavior, which would help explain why expressions are so consistent across time and across the globe.
However, I do have once critique of Ekman's idea. While I acknowledge that it largely makes sense, I take issue with the fact that there are only 6 emotions. What about confusion? I wouldn't categorize confusion as any of the "basic 6," but it's just as distinctive. It makes me wonder how it differs from the other 6.
Overall, I find Ekman's findings are fascinating. This last weekend, I was at a crowded even out of town. To try out Ekman's idea for myself, I watched the people around me, playing some music in my earbuds so as to drown out any auditory cues. Sure enough, it was effortless to tell the basic emotions people were expressing. I kept this up for about 15 minutes, and I saw all 6 of them (and my 7th addition as well) repeatedly. It seems like such a "duh" concept, but these basic emotions really do make up the groundwork for human interaction, and that makes them endlessly important.