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The expressive side of the face -

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Mike Nicholls: Well, like most portraits, she's facing so that the left side of her face is showing
more than the right side of her face. A few years ago a survey was done of portraits going from
1300 right up until now, and around about 60% of the portraits are turned so that they're featuring
the left side of the face.

Robyn Williams: Why is that significant?

Mike Nicholls: I guess it's interesting, it could be either way. If you think about the face, it's
pretty well symmetrical to look at, and it's interesting that this bias exists, and it makes you
wonder why and whether it's the model choosing to do that or whether it's in actual fact the artist
choosing to portray the left side of the face.

Robyn Williams: And what do you think, personally?

Mike Nicholls: There's a number of options. It could be to do with the handedness of the artist.
Most artists are indeed right handed, but in actual fact if you look at the work made by
left-handed artists you still get the same bias, and indeed if you look at photographic portraits
you get the same bias. So it's not something simple to do with handedness.

Robyn Williams: Leonardo, by the way, was left-handed, wasn't he?

Mike Nicholls: Yes, that's right. So you always hear there's more left-handers amongst artists but
in actual face when you look at the hard data there's not much there, most of them still are
right-handed.

Robyn Williams: Tell me, what have you been doing to study this phenomenon?

Mike Nicholls: We wanted to get to the bottom of this and so actually we wanted to see if it was
the artist determining the bias or whether it's the model themselves. So we had a bunch of
university students sit down and we got them to pose in two ways. In one condition we said to them,
'This is a portrait, you're an important scientist and it's going to hang in the Royal Society
gallery, but you don't want to look smug or proud,' so we had them trying to conceal their emotion
and not show any emotion at all.

In the second condition we had people posing and in this case said to them, 'It's a portrait for
your family, you want to show your love and as much emotion as you can,' so we've got an emotional
condition and a non-emotional condition. We then had people pose simply for the portrait and we
took their photograph. What we found was that in the non-emotional condition there was no bias,
people didn't tend to turn one way or the other, but when people were trying to express their
emotion they turned the left side of their face, like most portraits indeed do.

This is interesting because it ties in with the fact that females in general are more likely to
turn the left side of the face when having a portrait taken than males are, and you wonder why that
is. It's most probably because most females are showing more emotion, they're naturally more
emotional than males, and so it most probably reflects that.

Robyn Williams: Of course Professor John Bradshaw from Monash in Ockham's Razor did describe this
laterality in the face in terms even of newsreaders who were rather more significant if you watch
their faces on the right-hand side when they were speaking. So you address the right-hand side to
get information, and the left-hand side, as you were suggesting, is more a kind of emotional
signaller. Does that make sense to you?

Mike Nicholls: I think it does boil down to what the two sides of the brain are doing. So when
people are turning the left side of the face, the left side of your face is indeed controlled by
the right side of your brain, and your right side of the brain is dominant for the expression of
emotion. So when we smile, when we look fearful, we tend to do it slightly more strongly on the
left side of the face. So it suggests that people somehow know that the left side is more
emotionally expressive, and indeed they're turning that side.

And in contrast, as you were saying, while the left side might be more important for emotional
expression, the right side is more important for verbal expression. So when we're lip-reading it
seems...and you can see this in newsreaders all the time, look at the right side of the mouth, it's
generally the side which is moving more and that's because the right side of the mouth is
controlled by the left side of the brain.

Robyn Williams: I had no idea I actually looked at a mouth except full on. I can't imagine just
looking at one little part of it, but we do apparently.

Mike Nicholls: Yes, that's right. With the research I did with John we were looking at which side
of the mouth people do look at, and not only do we move the right side of the mouth but when we're
actually looking at someone trying to lip-read we attend to that side of their mouth more as well.

Robyn Williams: Why is this sort of thing important, do you think, this sort of study?

Mike Nicholls: I think its interesting. Symmetries are naturally interesting. We could so easily,
like most other animals, be symmetrical. Most other animals are for the most part, at least in
terms of the way their brain is organised, fairly symmetrical. There are exceptions too; things
such as birds can have quite asymmetrical brains. But of the mammals we have the most asymmetrical
brain. So I guess it gives you an insight into what it is to be human and how important it is for
the brain to be asymmetrically organised in its function.

Robyn Williams: And how are you taking this next?

Mike Nicholls: We're moving on to looking at asymmetries in attention and how we pay more attention
to one side of the space, and we recently were looking at collisions and finding that people
collide more on one side. We over attend to the left and are more likely to collide with things on
our right.

Robyn Williams: How worrying!

Mike Nicholls: Yes, it could have quite a lot of real life impact. We've been getting people to get
in a wheelchair and negotiate an obstacle race and find that people do collide more to the
right-hand side, and that happens whether they're walking, in a wheelchair or whatever. But it
could have quite a few implications for manoeuvring ships. The Lake Illawarra, when she hit the
Tasman Bridge down in Tasmania, she hit to starboard, so there could be...if you start to look at
the incidence of these collisions, they may be asymmetrical.