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The first test used a measure that represents a culmination of Ekman’s life's work as the world's leading expert on the facial expression of emotions. The test consists of a videotape in which a series of faces show a variety of expressions very briefly. The challenge is to identify whether you've just seen the facial signs, for instance, of contempt or anger or fear. Each expression stays on the screen for just one-fifth of a second in one version, and for one thirtieth of a second in another—so fast that you would miss it if you blinked. Each time the person must select which of seven emotions he or she has just seen.
The ability to recognize fleeting expressions signals an unusual capacity for accurate empathy. Such expressions of emotion—called micro-expressions—happen outside the awareness of both the person who displays them and the person observing. Because they occur unwittingly, these ultra-rapid displays of emotion are completely uncensored, and so reveal—if only for a short moment—how the person truly feels.
From studies with thousands of people, Ekman knew that people who do better at recognizing these subtle emotions are more open to new experience, more interested and more curious about things in general. They are also conscientious—reliable and efficient. "So I had expected that many years of meditative experience"—which requires both openness and conscientiousness—"might make them do better on this ability,” Ekman explains. Thus he had wondered if Oser might be better able to identify these ultra-fast emotions than other people are.
Then Ekman announced his results: both Oser and another advanced Western meditator Ekman had been able to test were two standard deviations above the norm in recognizing these super- quick facial signals of emotion, albeit the two subjects differed in the emotions they were best at perceiving. They both scored far higher than any of the five thousand other people tested. "They do better than policemen, lawyers, psychiatrists, customs officials, judges—even Secret Service agents," the group that had previously distinguished itself as most accurate.
"It appears that one benefit of some part of the life paths these two have followed is becoming more aware of these subtle signs of how other people feel," Ekman notes. Oser had super acuity for the fleeting signs of fear, contempt and anger. The other meditator—a Westerner who, like Oser, had done a total of two to three years in solitary retreats in the Tibetan tradition—was similarly outstanding, though on a different range of emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust and, like Oser, anger.
One of the most primitive responses in the human repertoire, the startle reflex, involves a cascade of very quick muscle spasms in response to a loud, surprising sound or sudden, jarring sight. For everyone, the same five facial muscles instantaneously contract during a startle, particularly around the eyes. The startle reflex starts about two-tenths of a second after hearing the sound and ends around a half second after the sound. From beginning to end, it takes approximately a third of a second. The time course is always the same; that's the way we're wired.
Like all reflexes, the startle reflects activity of the brain stem, the most primitive, reptilian part of the brain. Like other brain stem responses—and unlike those of the autonomic nervous system, such as the rate at which the heart beats—the startle reflex lies beyond the range of voluntary regulation. So far as brain science understands, the mechanisms that control the startle reflex cannot be modified by any intentional act.
Ekman became interested in testing the startle reflex because its intensity predicts the magnitude of the negative emotions a person feels—particularly fear, anger, sadness and disgust. The bigger a person's startle, the more strongly that individual tends to experience negative emotions—though there's no relationship between the startle and positive feelings such as joy.
For a test of the magnitude of Oser's startle reflex, Ekman took him across San Francisco Bay to the psychophysiological laboratory of his colleague Robert Levenson at the University of California at Berkeley. There they wired Oser to capture his heart rate and sweat response and videotaped his facial expressions—all to record his physiological reactions to a startling sound. To eliminate any differences due to the noise level of the sound, they chose the top of the threshold for human tolerance to huge sound, like a pistol being fired or a large firecracker going off near one's ear.
They gave Oser the standard instruction, telling him that they would count down from ten to one, at which point he would hear a loud noise. They asked that he try to suppress the inevitable flinch, so that someone looking at him would not know he felt it. Some people can do better than others, but no one can come remotely close to completely suppressing it. A classic study in the 1940’s showed that it's impossible to prevent the startle reflex, despite the most intense, purposeful efforts to suppress the muscle spasms. No one Ekman and Robert Levenson had ever tested could do it. Earlier researchers found that even police marksmen, who fire guns routinely, are unable to keep themselves from startling.
But Oser did. Ekman explains, "When Oser tries to suppress the startle, it almost disappears. We've never found anyone who can do that. Nor have any other researchers.” Oser practiced two types of meditation while having the startle tested: one-pointed concentration and the open state. As Oser experienced it, the biggest effect was from the open state: "When I went into the open state, the explosive sound seemed to me softer, as if I was distanced from the sensations, hearing the sound from afar." Ekman reported that although Oser's physiology showed some slight changes, not a muscle of his face moved, which Oser related to his mind not being shaken by the bang. Indeed, as Oser later elaborated, "If you can remain properly in this state, the bang seems neutral, like a bird crossing the sky."