New research says all it takes is a quick examination of an individual’s face to read their emotions—no body language or movement needed. More specifically, this study “Facial color is an efficient mechanism to visually transmit emotion,” which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that people are able to correctly identify how another person is feeling up to 75% of the time just by observing changes in color around their nose, eyebrows, cheeks, and chin.

Alex Martinez, a professor of electrical computer engineering at Ohio State University, explains these findings: “We identified patterns of facial coloring that are unique to every emotion we studied. We believe these color patterns are due to subtle changes in blood flow or blood composition triggered by the central nervous system.” She goes on to say that we observe these changes and use them to identify feelings whether we mean to or not.

To reach this latest discovery, the researchers first separated hundreds of pictures of facial expressions into two different color channels, based on how we see color: a red-green channel group and a blue-yellow channel group. Then, they used computer analysis to analyze how certain emotions (such as happy and sad) formed distinctive color patterns and found similarities in how everyone displayed said color patterns—even despite differences in gender or ethnicity.

The next step was to test whether colors could convey emotions without being accompanied by smiles, frowns, or other expressions. To do this, the researchers showed 20 study participants a series of neutral faces and asked them to guess how each person was feeling. While the images were odd-looking, the participants were able to correctly identify happy, sad, and angry faces a majority of the time. To be specific, they identified faces that were colorized to look happy as happy about 70% of the time, faces colorized to look sad as sad about 75% of the time, and faces colorized to look angry as angry about 65% of the time. These subjects proved to perceive a given emotion, even with just one factor to go off of: color.

These findings gave researchers a closer look at how humans read feelings and also allowed them to create groundbreaking computer algorithms. These algorithms are able to assess face color and then correctly identify human emotion up to 90% of the time. This is just the latest in a series of studies on human emotion and expression that Martinez and his team have been working on. However, it is unique in comparison to the bulk of their research, as this discovery centers around color change and does not involve any muscle movement.

This study ultimately demonstrates that our brains are capable of observing faint color arrangements and determining what these arrangements mean. “There’s a little bit of every color everywhere,” Martinez explained. We may not realize it, but bits of red, green, yellow, and even blue appear in our faces depending on the emotion we’re feeling. And our brains pick up on it, whether we like it or not.

Ohio State University (2018, March 19). We Can Read Each Other’s Emotions From Subtle Changes in Facial Color. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved March 19, 2018 from

Benitez-Quiroz, C. F., Srinivasan, R., & Martinez, A. M. (2018, March 19). Facial color is an efficient mechanism to visually transmit emotion. PNAS. Retrieved March 20, 2018 from