Facial Muscles and Human Emotions

By Mary Ann Foster

Key Point

• Understanding the anatomy of facial muscles can help you begin successful sessions with a grounding facial massage.

When the muscles of a client’s face relax under a massage practitioner’s educated touch, a deep relaxation response follows.This occurs because the primary function of the facial muscles is emotional expression; these muscles provide a gateway to the emotional body. I’ve found that tracing the facial muscles in a slow, rhythmic manner initiates a wave of profound, whole-body relaxation in a receptive client.Relaxing the facial muscles can be a powerful tool for unlocking unconscious muscular guarding, quieting the mind, and dialing down autonomic tone, so it’s a great place to begin a massage.

Except for the masseter of the jaw, the facial muscles are flat, thin, and superficial. They are unique in that they attach to superficial fascia and skin rather than bone, and unlike the muscles of the limbs that move the arms and legs through space, their primary function is to communicate a nuanced array of human emotions. The facial muscles lie directly under the skin and connect to each other in a single, contiguous plane of tissue. Their contractions pull on the skin, working together as a single canvas to paint the picture of how a person feels.

Communicating Without Words

The extent to which we nonverbally communicate emotion through this animated, elastic myofascial mask has been thoroughly documented by Dr. Paul Ekman, a researcher of facial expression who describes the face as an involuntary emotional signal system. A professor emeritus in psychology at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco, Ekman is the world’s foremost expert in facial muscle expression. He specializes in the science of deception and trains law enforcement and Secret Service agents how to track and interpret subtle and often fleeting facial muscle patterns (or microexpressions) in alleged criminals and terrorists. 

Ekman’s cross-cultural investigations narrowed the range of human emotion down to seven universal emotions: anger, fear, disgust, surprise, sadness, happiness, and contempt. Each one presents a unique muscle pattern. For example, the nose wrinkles with disgust; the eyes, brows, and lips narrow with anger; and the corners of the eyes and mouth turn down with sadness. Surprise and fear are difficult to differentiate because they’re similar, and contempt is the only emotion that is asymmetrical—it tightens the corners of the lip into an arrogant smirk. Happiness is easy to recognize, though there is a difference between a genuine smile and a phony one. Only the former, the Duchenne smile, lifts both the corners of the mouth and eyes. 

With his team, Ekman concisely documented how 30 facial muscles have the potential to express 3,000 emotional states.1 In the course of isolating and controlling each facial muscle, Ekman and his colleagues found they were having spontaneous emotional releases and became severely depressed when exploring negative expressions. They also made an unusual discovery—that a person might display an emotion they didn’t know they felt. 

Ekman recognizes the central role that facial muscles serve in human relationships—how they can enhance our positive and healing connections between people. This is a primary motive that drives his work, which is essentially to teach compassion and empathy in human communication. To this end, Ekman collaborated with the Dalai Lama to create the Atlas of Emotions, a creative and interactive online tool for cultivating a calm mind and compassionate heart. It offers a detailed map for expanding and refining our emotional vocabulary and for processing negative emotions in a healthy and positive manner.2

We usually think of emotions as creating facial expressions, but the opposite also holds true. Ekman’s research emphasizes how changing your facial expression can change your physiology. When you’re feeling down, you can lift your spirits by smiling, which triggers the production of feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin, and simply sharing a smile with another person can do the same for them.3 

The Results Are in the Faces 

A great way to study the muscles of the face is to isolate each muscle with active movement. Practice this “facial yoga” in front of a mirror for feedback.  

I address the face in every treatment and am always amazed at how five minutes of slow, systemic, and rhythmic tracing of the facial muscles can have a deep and healing effect on receptive clients. They tend to drift into that healing twilight between waking and sleeping, and when they wake up, I can see their face is deeply relaxed and they look rejuvenated. I also added facial muscle tracing to my morning ritual—a routine that takes only a few minutes and has been well worth the time for its anti-aging effects. 


1. Paul Ekman, Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in Marketplace,
Politics, and Marriage
, 3rd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009). 

2. The Atlas of Emotions, accessed January 2024,                         https://atlasofemotions.org.

3. Daniel Goleman, Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama. (New York: Bantam Dell, A Division of Random House Inc., 2004).

Facial Muscles 

Here are short descriptions of several facial muscles and how to familiarize yourself with their forms and functions.  

The buccinator is a quadrangular muscle that arises from the myofascia of the orbicularis muscle on the corner of the mouth and inserts on the ramus of the mandible. It compresses the cheeks when whistling, blowing out (like on a wind instrument), drinking out of a straw, and swallowing. It also helps keep food between the molars while chewing.

The orbicularis oriscircles the mouth and works like a sphincter muscle to open and close this orifice. It draws the lips into a pucker for a kiss and presses and tightens the lips together. 

The orbicularis oculi circles and covers the eye and opens and closes them. We use it to wink, blink, squint, or smile with our eyes. 

The frontalis runs from the scalp above the hairline to the skin under the eyebrows. It raises the eyebrows and creates horizontal wrinkles across the forehead in an expression of surprise, fear, and curiosity. 

The procerus is a small, pyramid-shaped muscle that arises on fascia of the nasal bone and upper nasal cartilage and inserts on forehead skin between the eyebrows.   

The corrugator supercilii is a small muscle bridging the procerus with the orbicularis oculi. Together, the corrugator supercilii and procerus produce a furrow between the eyebrows that expresses confusion, concentration, or pain. They squint on a bright sunny day (and keep Botox suppliers in business—a Botox injection temporarily paralyzes them, making wrinkles less distinct). 

The nasalis is a narrow strap muscle running across the maxilla. It widens and flares the nostrils when we take a deep breath to smell a fragrance and during excitement. 

The levator labii superioris is shaped like a Y with two heads: one attaches to the zygomatic bone and the other attaches to the infraorbital edge of the maxilla. Both heads converge and insert on the skin and orbicularis oris of the upper lip. The levator labii is the “something smells bad” muscle; it expresses disgust, disdain, and contempt. It raises and curls the corner of the upper lip in a snarling or sneering action. Both heads can develop trigger points that refer pain below the eye and to the bridge of the nose, which are often accompanied by sinus pain. 

The levator anguli oris arises from the maxilla near the canine teeth and inserts near the corners of the mouth. It pulls the corners of the lips up into a forced, phony smile or a smirk. 

The zygomaticus majoris a diagonal strap muscle that runs from the zygomatic bone to the corner of the mouth. The “feel-good muscle” contracts when we smile and laugh. A genuine smile will engage the zygomaticus major as well as the orbicularis oculi, which narrows the eyes. 

The zygomaticus minorrunsin a curve above the zygomaticus major from the cheek toward the nose. It elevates the upper lip and generates a furrow lateral to the nose, producing an understated expression that can range from subtle joy to subtle fear. 

The risorius is a small horizontal strap running from the corner of the mouth to the fascia over the middle of the masseter. It draws the lips laterally into a wincing, grinning, or frowning expression. 

The depressor septi is a small diagonal muscle coming off the base of the nose that narrows the nostrils and pulls them down. We often contract this muscle to block noxious odors or in an expression of disgust. The depressor muscles are what turn a smile into a frown or create an expression of feigned anger. 

The depressor labii inferiorisattaches to fascia on the lateral side of the lower lip and angles out to mandibular fascial insertions. It contracts when we pout or sulk, drawing the lower lip down and out to both sides laterally. 

The depressor anguli orisattaches to fascia on the lateral lip and fans down into the sides of the mandible. It draws the corners of the lips down when frowning and grimacing. 

The mentalis is a small muscle with vertical fibers on the chin. It wrinkles skin on the chin as a person would do when pouting, expressing doubt, or showing sadness. It also curves the lower lip into an inverted U.

Mary Ann Foster, a massage therapist and educator in practice since 1981, is the author of Therapeutic Kinesiology (Pearson Publishing, 2013) and Somatic Patterning (EMS Press, 2014). She can be contacted at info@emspress.com.