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The act of frowning—Reflection with an effort, or with the perception of something difficult or disagreeable—Abstracted meditation—Ill-temper—Moroseness—Obstinacy Sulkiness and pouting—Decision or determination—The firm closure of the mouth.

THE corrugators, by their contraction, lower the eyebrows and bring them together, producing vertical furrows on the forehead—that is, a frown. Sir C. Bell, who erroneously thought that the corrugator was peculiar to man, ranks it as "the most remarkable muscle of the human face. It knits the eyebrows with an energetic effort, which unaccountably, but irresistibly, conveys the idea of mind." Or, as he elsewhere says, "when the eyebrows are knit, energy of mind is apparent, and there is the mingling of thought and emotion with the savage and brutal rage of the mere animal."[1] There is much truth in these remarks, but hardly the whole truth. Dr. Duchenne has called the corrugator the muscle of reflection;[2] but this name, without some limitation, cannot be considered as quite correct.

[1] ‘Anatomy of Expression,’ pp. 137, 139. It is not surprising that the corrugators should have become much more developed in man than in the anthropoid apes; for they are brought into incessant action by him under various circumstances, and will have been strengthened and modified by the inherited effects of use. We have seen how important a part they play, together with the orbiculares, in protecting the eyes from being too much gorged with blood during violent expiratory movements. When the eyes are closed as quickly and as forcibly as possible, to save them from being injured by a blow, the corrugators contract. With savages or other men whose heads are uncovered, the eyebrows are continually lowered and contracted to serve as a shade against a too strong light; and this is effected partly by the corrugators. This movement would have been more especially serviceable to man, as soon as his early progenitors held their heads erect. Lastly, Prof. Donders believes (‘Archives of Medicine,’ ed. by L. Beale, 1870, vol. v. p. 34), that the corrugators are brought into action in causing the eyeball to advance in accommodation for proximity in vision.

A man may be absorbed in the deepest thought, and his brow will remain smooth until he encounters some obstacle in his train of reasoning, or is interrupted by some disturbance, and then a frown passes like a shadow over his brow. A half-starved man may think intently how to obtain food, but he probably will not frown unless he encounters either in thought or action some difficulty, or finds the food when obtained nauseous. I have noticed that almost everyone instantly frowns if he perceives a strange or bad taste in what he is eating. I asked several persons, without explaining my object, to listen intently to a very gentle tapping sound, the nature and source of which they all perfectly knew, and not one frowned; but a man who joined us, and who could not conceive what we were all doing in profound silence, when asked to listen, frowned much, though not in an ill-temper, and said he could not in the least understand what we all wanted. Dr. Piderit[3] who has published remarks to the same effect, adds that stammerers generally frown in speaking, and that a man in doing even so trifling a thing as pulling on a boot, frowns if he finds it too tight. Some persons are such habitual frowners, that the mere effort of speaking almost always causes their brows to contract.


[2] ‘Mecanisme de la Physionomie Humaine,’ Album, Legende iii.

[3] ‘Mimik und Physiognomik,’ s. 46.

Men of all races frown when they are in any way perplexed in thought, as I infer from the answers which I have received to my queries; but I framed them badly, confounding absorbed meditation with perplexed reflection. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Australians, Malays, Hindoos, and Kafirs of South Africa frown, when they are puzzled. Dobritzhoffer remarks that the Guaranies of South America on like occasions knit their brows.[4]

From these considerations, we may conclude that frowning is not the expression of simple reflection, however profound, or of attention, however close, but of something difficult or displeasing encountered in a train of thought or in action. Deep reflection can, however, seldom be long carried on without some difficulty, so that it will generally be accompanied by a frown. Hence it is that frowning commonly gives to the countenance, as Sir C. Bell remarks, an aspect of intellectual energy. But in order that this effect may be produced, the eyes must be clear and steady, or they may be cast downwards, as often occurs in deep thought. The countenance must not be otherwise disturbed, as in the case of an ill-tempered or peevish man, or of one who shows the effects of prolonged suffering, with dulled eyes and drooping jaw, or who perceives a bad taste in his food, or who finds it difficult to perform some trifling act, such as threading a needle. In these cases a frown may often be seen, but it will be accompanied by some other expression, which will entirely prevent the countenance having an appearance of intellectual energy or of profound thought.

[4] ‘History of the Abipones,’ Eng. translat. vol. ii. p. 59, as quoted by Lubbock, ‘Origin of Civilisation,’ 1870, p. 355.

We may now inquire how it is that a frown should express the perception of something difficult or disagreeable, either in thought or action. In the same way as naturalists find it advisable to trace the embryological development of an organ in order fully to understand its structure, so with the movements of expression it is advisable to follow as nearly as possible the same plan. The earliest and almost sole expression seen during the first days of infancy, and then often exhibited is that displayed during the act of screaming; and screaming is excited, both at first and for some time afterwards, by every distressing or displeasing sensation and emotion,--by hunger, pain, anger, jealousy, fear, &c. At such times the muscles round the eyes are strongly contracted; and this, as I believe, explains to a large extent the act of frowning during the remainder of our lives. I repeatedly observed my own infants, from under the age of one week to that of two or three months, and found that when a screaming-fit came on gradually, the first sign was the contraction of the corrugators, which produced a slight frown, quickly followed by the contraction of the other muscles round the eyes. When an infant is uncomfortable or unwell, little frowns—as I record in my notes—may be seen incessantly passing like shadows over its face; these being generally, but not always, followed sooner or later by a crying-fit. For instance, I watched for some time a baby, between seven and eight weeks old, sucking some milk which was cold, and therefore displeasing to him; and a steady little frown was maintained all the time. This was never developed into an actual crying-fit, though occasionally every stage of close approach could be observed.

As the habit of contracting the brows has been followed by infants during innumerable generations, at the commencement of every crying or screaming fit, it has become firmly associated with the incipient sense of something distressing or disagreeable. Hence under similar circumstances it would be apt to be continued during maturity, although never then developed into a crying-fit. Screaming or weeping begins to be voluntarily restrained at an early period of life, whereas frowning is hardly ever restrained at any age. It is perhaps worth notice that with children much given to weeping, anything which perplexes their minds, and which would cause most other children merely to frown, readily makes them weep. So with certain classes of the insane, any effort of mind, however slight, which with an habitual frowner would cause a slight frown, leads to their weeping in an unrestrained manner. It is not more surprising that the habit of contracting the brows at the first perception of something distressing, although gained during infancy, should be retained during the rest of our lives, than that many other associated habits acquired at an early age should be permanently retained both by man and the lower animals. For instance, full-grown cats, when feeling warm and comfortable, often retain the habit of alternately protruding their fore-feet with extended toes, which habit they practised for a definite purpose whilst sucking their mothers.

Another and distinct cause has probably strengthened the habit of frowning, whenever the mind is intent on any subject and encounters some difficulty. Vision is the most important of all the senses, and during primeval times the closest attention must have been incessantly: directed towards distant objects for the sake of obtaining prey and avoiding danger. I remember being struck, whilst travelling in parts of South America, which were dangerous from the presence of Indians, how incessantly, yet as it appeared unconsciously, the half-wild Gauchos closely scanned the whole horizon. Now, when any one with no covering on his head (as must have been aboriginally the case with mankind), strives to the utmost to distinguish in broad daylight, and especially if the sky is bright, a distant object, he almost invariably contracts his brows to prevent the entrance of too much light; the lower eyelids, cheeks, and upper lip being at the same time raised, so as to lessen the orifice of the eyes. I have purposely asked several persons, young and old, to look, under the above circumstances, at distant objects, making them believe that I only wished to test the power of their vision; and they all behaved in the manner just described. Some of them, also, put their open, flat hands over their eyes to keep out the excess of light. Gratiolet, after making some remarks to nearly the same effect,[5] says, "Ce sont la des attitudes de vision difficile." He concludes that the muscles round the eyes contract partly for the sake of excluding too much light (which appears to me the more important end), and partly to prevent all rays striking the retina, except those which come direct from the object that is scrutinized. Mr. Bowman, whom I consulted on this point, thinks that the contraction of the surrounding muscles may, in addition, "partly sustain the consensual movements of the two eyes, by giving a firmer support while the globes are brought to binocular vision by their own proper muscles."

As the effort of viewing with care under a bright light a distant object is both difficult and irksome, and as this effort has been habitually accompanied, during numberless generations, by the contraction of the eyebrows, the habit of frowning will thus have been much strengthened; although it was originally practised during infancy from a quite independent cause, namely as the first step in the protection of the eyes during screaming. There is, indeed, much analogy, as far as the state of the mind is concerned, between intently scrutinizing a distant object, and following out an obscure train of thought, or performing some little and troublesome mechanical work. The belief that the habit of contracting the brows is continued when there is no need whatever to exclude too much light, receives support from the cases formerly alluded to, in which the eyebrows or eyelids are acted on under certain circumstances in a useless manner, from having been similarly used, under analogous circumstances, for a serviceable purpose. For instance, we voluntarily close our eyes when we do not wish to see any object, and we are apt to close them, when we reject a proposition, as if we could not or would not see it; or when we think about something horrible. We raise our eyebrows when we wish to see quickly all round us, and we often do the same, when we earnestly desire to remember something; acting as if we endeavoured to see it.

[5] ‘De la Physionomie,’ pp. 15, 144, 146. Mr. Herbert Spencer accounts for frowning exclusively by the habit of contracting the brows as a shade to the eyes in a bright light: see ‘Principles of Physiology,’ 2nd edit. 1872, p. 546.


Abstraction. Meditation.—When a person is lost in thought with his mind absent, or, as it is sometimes said, "when he is in a brown study," he does not frown, but his eyes appear vacant. The lower eyelids are generally raised and wrinkled, in the same manner as when a short-sighted person tries to distinguish a distant object; and the upper orbicular muscles are at the same time slightly contracted. The wrinkling of the lower eyelids under these circumstances has been observed with some savages, as by Mr. Dyson Lacy with the Australians of Queensland, and several times by Mr. Geach with the Malays of the interior of Malacca. What the meaning or cause of this action may be, cannot at present be explained; but here we have another instance of movement round the eyes in relation to the state of the mind.

The vacant expression of the eyes is very peculiar, and at once shows when a man is completely lost in thought. Professor Donders has, with his usual kindness, investigated this subject for me. He has observed others in this condition, and has been himself observed by Professor Engelmann. The eyes are not then fixed on any object, and therefore not, as I had imagined, on some distant object. The lines of vision of the two eyes even often become slightly divergent; the divergence, if the head be held vertically, with the plane of vision horizontal, amounting to an angle of 2’0 as a maximum. This was ascertained by observing the crossed double image of a distant object. When the head droops forward, as often occurs with a man absorbed in thought, owing to the general relaxation of his muscles, if the plane of vision be still horizontal, the eyes are necessarily a little turned upwards, and then the divergence is as much as 3’0, or 3’0 5’: if the eyes are turned still more upwards, it amounts to between 6’0 and 7’0. Professor Donders attributes this divergence to the almost complete relaxation of certain muscles of the eyes, which would be apt to follow from the mind being wholly absorbed.[6] The active condition of the muscles of the eyes is that of convergence; and Professor Donders remarks, as bearing on their divergence during a period of complete abstraction, that when one eye becomes blind, it almost always, after a short lapse of time, deviates outwards; for its muscles are no longer used in moving the eyeball inwards for the sake of binocular vision.

[6] Gratiolet remarks (De la Phys. p. 35), "Quand l’attention est fixee sur quelque image interieure, l’oeil regarde dqns le vide et s’associe automatiquement a la contemplation de l’esprit." But this view hardly deserves to be called an explanation.

Perplexed reflection is often accompanied by certain movements or gestures. At such times we commonly raise our hands to our foreheads, mouths, or chins; but we do not act thus, as far as I have seen, when we are quite lost in meditation, and no difficulty is encountered. Plautus, describing in one of his plays[7] a puzzled man, says, "Now look, he has pillared his chin upon his hand." Even so trifling and apparently unmeaning a gesture as the raising of the hand to the face has been observed with some savages. Al. J. Mansel Weale has seen it with the Kafirs of South Africa; and the native chief Gaika adds, that men then "sometimes pull their beards." Mr. Washington Matthews, who attended to some of the wildest tribes of Indians in the western regions of the United States, remarks that he has seen them when concentrating their thoughts, bring their "hands, usually the thumb and index finger, in contact with some part of the face, commonly the upper lip." We can understand why the forehead should be pressed or rubbed, as deep thought tries the brain; but why the hand should be raised to the mouth or face is far from clear.


Ill-temper.—We have seen that frowning is the natural expression of some difficulty encountered, or of something disagreeable experienced either in thought or action, and he whose mind is often and readily affected in this way, will be apt to be ill-tempered, or slightly angry, or peevish, and will commonly show it by frowning. But a cross expression, due to a frown, may be counteracted, if the mouth appears sweet, from being habitually drawn into a smile, and the eyes are bright and cheerful. So it will be if the eye is clear and steady, and there is the appearance of earnest reflection. Frowning, with some depression of the corners of the mouth, which is a sign of grief, gives an air of peevishness. If a child (see Plate IV., fig. 2)[8] frowns much whilst crying, but does not strongly contract in the usual manner the orbicular muscles, a well-marked expression of anger or even of rage, together with misery, is displayed.

[7] ‘Miles Gloriosus,’ act ii. sc. 2.

If the whole frowning brow be drawn much downward by the contraction of the pyramidal muscles of the nose, which produces transverse wrinkles or folds across the base of the nose, the expression becomes one of moroseness. Duchenne believes that the contraction of this muscle, without any frowning, gives the appearance of extreme and aggressive hardness.[9] But I much doubt whether this is a true or natural expression. I have shown Duchenne’s photograph of a young man, with this muscle strongly contracted by means of galvanism, to eleven persons, including some artists, and none of them could form an idea what was intended, except one, a girl, who answered correctly, "surely reserve." When I first looked at this photograph, knowing what was intended, my imagination added, as I believe, what was necessary, namely, a frowning brow; and consequently the expression appeared to me true and extremely morose.

[8] The original photograph by Herr Kindermann is much more expressive than this copy, as it shows the frown on the brow more plainly.

[9] ‘Mecanisme de la Physionomie Humaine,’ Album, Legende iv. figs. 16-18.

A firmly closed mouth, in addition to a lowered and frowning brow, gives determination to the expression, or may make it obstinate and sullen. How it comes that the firm closure of the mouth gives the appearance of determination will presently be discussed. An expression of sullen obstinacy has been clearly recognized by my informants, in the natives of six different regions of Australia. It is well marked, according to Mr. Scott, with the Hindoos. It has been recognized with the Malays, Chinese, Kafirs, Abyssinians, and in a conspicuous degree, according to Dr. Rothrock, with the wild Indians of North America, and according to Mr. D. Forbes, with the Aymaras of Bolivia. I have also observed it with the Araucanos of southern Chili. Mr. Dyson Lacy remarks that the natives of Australia, when in this frame of mind, sometimes fold their arms across their breasts, an attitude which may be seen with us. A firm determination, amounting to obstinacy, is, also, sometimes expressed by both shoulders being kept raised, the meaning of which gesture will be explained in the following chapter.

With young children sulkiness is shown by pouting, or, as it is sometimes called, "making a snout."[10] When the corners of the mouth are much depressed, the lower lip is a little everted and protruded; and this is likewise called a pout. But the pouting here referred to, consists of the protrusion of both lips into a tubular form, sometimes to such an extent as to project as far as the end of the nose, if this be short. Pouting is generally accompanied by frowning, and sometimes by the utterance of a booing or whooing noise.

This expression is remarkable, as almost the sole one, as far as I know, which is exhibited much more plainly during childhood, at least with Europeans, than during maturity. There is, however, some tendency to the protrusion of the lips with the adults of all races under the influence of great rage. Some children pout when they are shy, and they can then hardly be called sulky.

[10] Hensleigh Wedgwood on ‘The Origin of Language,’ 1866, p. 78.

From inquiries which I have made in several large families, pouting does not seem very common with European children; but it prevails throughout the world, and must be both common and strongly marked with most savage races, as it has caught the attention of many observers. It has been noticed in eight different districts of Australia; and one of my informants remarks how greatly the lips of the children are then protruded. Two observers have seen pouting with the children of Hindoos; three, with those of the Kafirs and Fingoes of South Africa, and with the Hottentots; and two, with the children of the wild Indians of North America. Pouting has also been observed with the Chinese, Abyssinians, Malays of Malacca, Dyaks of Borneo, and often with the New Zealanders. Mr. Mansel Weale informs me that he has seen the lips much protruded, not only with the children of the Kafirs, but with the adults of both sexes when sulky; and Mr. Stack has sometimes observed the same thing with the men, and very frequently with the women of New Zealand. A trace of the same expression may occasionally be detected even with adult Europeans.

We thus see that the protrusion of the lips, especially with young children, is characteristic of sulkiness throughout the greater part of the world. This movement apparently results from the retention, chiefly during youth, of a primordial habit, or from an occasional reversion to it. Young orangs and chimpanzees protrude their lips to an extraordinary degree, as described in a former chapter, when they are discontented, somewhat angry, or sulky; also when they are surprised, a little frightened, and even when slightly pleased. Their mouths are protruded apparently for the sake of making the various noises proper to these several states of mind; and its shape, as I observed with the chimpanzee, differed slightly when the cry of pleasure and that of anger were uttered. As soon as these animals become enraged, the shape of the month wholly changes, and the teeth are exposed. The adult orang when wounded is said to emit "a singular cry, consisting at first of high notes, which at length deepen into a low roar. While giving out the high notes he thrusts out his lips into a funnel shape, but in uttering the low notes he holds his mouth wide open."[11] With the gorilla, the lower lip is said to be capable of great elongation. If then our semi-human progenitors protruded their lips when sulky or a little angered, in the same manner as do the existing anthropoid apes, it is not an anomalous, though a curious fact, that our children should exhibit, when similarly affected, a trace of the same expression, together with some tendency to utter a noise. For it is not at all unusual for animals to retain, more or less perfectly, during early youth, and subsequently to lose, characters which were aboriginally possessed by their adult progenitors, and which are still retained by distinct species, their near relations.

Nor is it an anomalous fact that the children of savages should exhibit a stronger tendency to protrude their lips, when sulky, than the children of civilized Europeans; for the essence of savagery seems to consist in the retention of a primordial condition, and this occasionally holds good even with bodily peculiarities.[12] It may be objected to this view of the origin of pouting, that the anthropoid apes likewise protrude their lips when astonished and even when a little pleased; whilst with us this expression is generally confined to a sulky frame of mind. But we shall see in a future chapter that with men of various races surprise does sometimes lead to a slight protrusion of the lips, though great surprise or astonishment is more commonly shown by the mouth being widely opened. As when we smile or laugh we draw back the corners of the mouth, we have lost any tendency to protrude the lips, when pleased, if indeed our early progenitors thus expressed pleasure.

[11] Muller, as quoted by Huxley, ‘Man’s Place in Nature,’ 1863, p. 38.

A little gesture made by sulky children may here be noticed, namely, their "showing a cold shoulder." This has a different meaning, as, I believe, from the keeping both shoulders raised. A cross child, sitting on its parent’s knee, will lift up the near shoulder, then jerk it away, as if from a caress, and afterwards give a backward push with it, as if to push away the offender. I have seen a child, standing at some distance from any one, clearly express its feelings by raising one shoulder, giving it a little backward movement, and then turning away its whole body.


Decision or determination.—The firm closure of the mouth tends to give an expression of determination or decision to the countenance. No determined man probably ever had an habitually gaping mouth. Hence, also, a small and weak lower jaw, which seems to indicate that the mouth is not habitually and firmly closed, is commonly thought to be characteristic of feebleness of character. A prolonged effort of any kind, whether of body or mind, implies previous determination; and if it can be shown that the mouth is generally closed with firmness before and during a great and continued exertion of the muscular system, then, through the principle of association, the mouth would almost certainly be closed as soon as any determined resolution was taken. Now several observers have noticed that a man, in commencing any violent muscular effort, invariably first distends his lungs with air, and then compresses it by the strong contraction of the muscles of the chest; and to effect this the mouth must be firmly closed. Moreover, as soon as the man is compelled to draw breath, he still keeps his chest as much distended as possible.

[11] I have given several instances in my ‘Descent of Man,’ vol. i. chap. iv.

Various causes have been assigned for this manner of acting. Sir C. Bell maintains[13] that the chest is distended with air, and is kept distended at such times, in order to give a fixed support to the muscles which are thereto attached. Hence, as he remarks, when two men are engaged in a deadly contest, a terrible silence prevails, broken only by hard stifled breathing. There is silence, because to expel the air in the utterance of any sound would be to relax the support for the muscles of the arms. If an outcry is heard, supposing the struggle to take place in the dark, we at once know that one of the two has given up in despair.

Gratiolet admits[14] that when a man has to struggle with another to his utmost, or has to support a great weight, or to keep for a long time the same forced attitude, it is necessary for him first to make a deep inspiration, and then to cease breathing; but he thinks that Sir C. Bell’s explanation is erroneous. He maintains that arrested respiration retards the circulation of the blood, of which I believe there is no doubt, and he adduces some curious evidence from the structure of the lower animals, showing, on the one hand, that a retarded circulation is necessary for prolonged muscular exertion, and, on the other hand, that a rapid circulation is necessary for rapid movements. According to this view, when we commence any great exertion, we close our mouths and stop breathing, in order to retard the circulation of the blood. Gratiolet sums up the subject by saying, "C’est la la vraie theorie de l’effort continu;" but how far this theory is admitted by other physiologists I do not know.

[13] ‘Anatomy of Expression.’ p. 190.

[14] ‘De la Physionomie,’ pp. 118-121.

Dr. Piderit accounts[15] for the firm closure of the mouth during strong muscular exertion, on the principle that the influence of the will spreads to other muscles besides those necessarily brought into action in making any particular exertion; and it is natural that the muscles of respiration and of the mouth, from being so habitually used, should be especially liable to be thus acted on. It appears to me that there probably is some truth in this view, for we are apt to press the teeth hard together during violent exertion, and this is not requisite to prevent expiration, whilst the muscles of the chest are strongly contracted.

Lastly, when a man has to perform some delicate and difficult operation, not requiring the exertion of any strength, he nevertheless generally closes his mouth and ceases for a time to breathe; but he acts thus in order that the movements of his chest may not disturb, those of his arms. A person, for instance, whilst threading a needle, may be seen to compress his lips and either to stop breathing, or to breathe as quietly as possible. So it was, as formerly stated, with a young and sick chimpanzee, whilst it amused itself by killing flies with its knuckles, as they buzzed about on the window-panes. To perform an action, however trifling, if difficult, implies some amount of previous determination.

[15] ‘Mimik und Physiognomik,’ s. 79.

There appears nothing improbable in all the above assigned causes having come into play in different degrees, either conjointly or separately, on various occasions. The result would be a well-established habit, now perhaps inherited, of firmly closing the mouth at the commencement of and during any violent and prolonged exertion, or any delicate operation. Through the principle of association there would also be a strong tendency towards this same habit, as soon as the mind had resolved on any particular action or line of conduct, even before there was any bodily exertion, or if none were requisite. The habitual and firm closure of the mouth would thus come to show decision of character; and decision readily passes into obstinacy.

Contents - CHAPTER - Introduction

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8 9 10 11 12 13 14

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