Image of the Day: Pain or O-Face?

Expressions of pain and orgasm are distinguishable, study finds.

Jef Akst
Oct 10, 2018
Color-coded face maps show the mental representations of facial expressions of pain (left) and orgasm (right) to Western (top) or East Asian (bottom) observers. Warm colors indicate that more observers’ facial-expression models included the muscular movement highlighted, while cooler colors indicate fewer observers.
COURTESY OF José-Miguel Fernández-Dols

Facial expressions of pain and orgasm are different, according to a study published this week (October 8) in PNAS. Forty Western and 40 East Asian participants viewed computerized images of a human face and categorized the expressions as indicative of pain, orgasm, or other. For pain and orgasm, participants also rated the intensities of the expressions they viewed. 

In contrast to previous research that suggested expressions of pain and orgasm are “virtually indistinguishable,” according to the PNAS paper, the new study found that there were distinctions between the two—namely, expressions of pain involve pulling the face inward (lowering the eyebrows and wrinkling the nose, for example) and expressions of pleasure involve movements that expanded the face, such as raising the eye brows. Moreover, while Western and East Asian observers viewed expressions of pain similarly, there were culture-specific elements of orgasmic expressions. For example, Westerners’ o-face involved wide-open eyes and a dropped jaw, while East Asians’ expression involved smiling.

Dynamic mental representations of the facial expressions of pain or orgasm 
PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1807862115, 2018

C. Chen et al., “Distinct facial expressions represent pain and pleasure across cultures,” PNAS, doi:10.1073/pnas.1807862115, 2018.