March 19, 2014
Facial expressions reflect decisions about the perceived meaning of social stimuli and the expected socio-emotional outcome of responding (or not) with a reciprocating expression. The decision to produce a facial expression emerges from the joint activity of a network of structures that include the amygdala and multiple, interconnected cortical and subcortical motor areas. Reciprocal transformations between these sensory and motor signals give rise to distinct brain states that promote, or impede the production of facial expressions. The muscles of the upper and lower face are controlled by anatomically distinct motor areas. Facial expressions engage to a different extent the lower and upper face and thus require distinct patterns of neural activity distributed across multiple facial motor areas in ventrolateral frontal cortex, the supplementary motor area, and two areas in the midcingulate cortex. The distributed nature of the decision manifests in the joint activation of multiple motor areas that initiate the production of facial expression. Concomitantly multiple areas, including the amygdala, monitor ongoing overt behaviors (the expression itself) and the covert, autonomic responses that accompany emotional expressions. As the production of facial expressions is brought into the framework of formal decision making, an important challenge will be to incorporate autonomic and visceral states into decisions that govern the receiving-emitting cycle of social signals.