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Dr. Erika Rosenberg Discusses Compassion & Relationships Featured in Jweekly
This article appeared in Jweekly, also known as The Jewish News of Northern California, a Jewish-focused publication that focuses on what it means to be Jewish today across global communities. The article features Dr. Erika Rosenberg, Founding Faculty and Director of Research at the Compassion Institute. You can find the original article here.
Q&A: How this psychologist lets your face do the talking
by LAURA PAULL | May 9, 2023
Your mother isn’t the only one who can “read you like a book.”
Research psychologist Erika Rosenberg of Oakland is an expert at reading facial expressions with what some might call terrifying accuracy. In fact, she teaches others how to do it.
What are the applications of the system known as Facial Action Coding? Who’s using it and to what end? And if we’re so easy to read, can we at least manage our giveaway emotions?
For that last question, Rosenberg, 58, collaborated on a meditation-based method to bring more self-awareness to our emotional lives called Compassion Cultivation Training. She teaches it at several institutions, including Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. She also works with the Compassion Institute, a nonprofit devoted to promoting compassion education worldwide, and is a consulting scientist at the Center for Mind & Brain at UC Davis. She is a faculty member at the Nyingma Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist learning center in Berkeley. And Rosenberg has led meditation training in venues ranging from a French monastery to a Santa Fe Zen center to Burning Man.
Raised in a Reform family in Los Angeles and San Jose, she now describes herself spiritually as a “Jewish-Buddhist-Deadhead.” The latter is “at least as important as the other two,” she quipped.
J. talked with Rosenberg via Zoom about her career. Curly hair still wet from her morning swim, she sat in front of a large tie-dye fabric hung on the wall.
J.: So just how do you “read” faces?
Erika Rosenberg: I’m an expert in Facial Action Coding, a measurement system for objectively describing facial behavior. The language of the face is written in what is called action units, or AUs, so I can describe anything that anybody does with their face in terms of the AUs that comprise it. Lifting the brows, stretching your mouth, squinting your eyelid, opening the jaws — each has a number. And these facial movements, in various combinations, correlate with specific emotions, to a great extent across cultures.
Why do we want to do this?
It is the only way that’s been developed to scientifically measure emotion. It grew out of work that UCSF psychology professor Paul Ekman pioneered in the 1960s that sought to understand the relationship between emotion and facial expression, resulting in a catalog of some 5,000 facial micro-movements. As a tool for better understanding the full range of human feelings, the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) has found applications in the academic and corporate worlds, to some degree in law enforcement, and in the digital arts and entertainment industry.
How did you get into this specialty?
During my doctoral work in psychology at UCSF Medical Center, I became interested in the emotional aspects of stress because a situation that one person responds to as a threat, another might respond to as a challenge. An individual’s emotions are key to any experience, yet I knew of no way to measure them scientifically. Then I learned that Paul Ekman was on the faculty there, known for his research on how facial expressions are common to all humanity. I started talking to him and, bottom line, got into this whole world of studying facial behavior.
What aspects of this system did you explore in your own research?
I did my dissertation on facial expressions of anger in relation to heart disease: what emotions drive clinically significant cardiac events.
How is FACS being used in the digital arts?
In 2004 I had my first contact with people in the digital arts who were creating faces virtually, for animations. When they discovered the FACS manual, they realized they now had a language and a tool for describing facial movement, by which they could instruct digital faces to move to display various emotions.
The animation in films like “Avatar” are driven by these models. One of the hats I wear is chief scientific officer at Humain Ltd., a company that creates digital humans, fantasy creatures and digital doubles for many of the top entertainment and technology companies around the world.
Do you see things on people’s faces in everyday life that most of us don’t?
I can’t help it. If you learn this [system], it’s going to change the way you look at people. Little things that the untrained eye would overlook are glaring to me. Sometimes when people find out what I do, they get self-conscious. But I’m not doing a running analysis every time I talk with someone.
Does that impact your relationships?
Only in beneficial ways. You have to be careful when learning these tools. Micro expressions — those quick facial movements lasting less than half a second — can reveal emotions that people aren’t meaning to share. They might not even be aware of it. So I tell students: When you get information like that from somebody, maybe someone you’re in a close relationship with, make note of it, but don’t respond to what you see in the heat of the moment. Save it for later, when you can bring it up more carefully. It’s just an extra channel of information that you have, to use mindfully and compassionately.
You have an interesting duality in your work life, between the scientific FACS and the more heart-centered Compassion Cultivation Training, or CCT.
A parallel trajectory for me my whole adult life has been meditation. I started practicing it around 1989 as a grad student, for stress reduction. In 2009, those paths crossed. The Dalai Lama said that everyone needs compassion training in this world. He wanted to make it accessible to everybody, not only Buddhists. Thupten Jinpa, the chief translator for the Dalai Lama, was then a visiting scholar at Stanford.
He invited me and some other people with Western scientific expertise to help him develop secular compassion training, bringing the tools of compassion and meditation training from Tibetan Buddhism together with science from Western psychology. We came up with this wonderful eight-week training program. And Google was the first place I taught it.
In 2016 Jinpa went off and founded his own nonprofit in the East Bay called the Compassion Institute, and that’s where I do much of my work now.
Do you consider yourself a Buddhist?
I don’t like “ists” and “isms.” I wore the term “Jew-Bu” for a while. But I’m a Jew, always will be. One of the things I love about Judaism is that it is open to questioning, which is very similar to Buddhism. The Buddha never said, “Follow me, and do what I say.” He said, “Wow, I discovered something. You can too. But you gotta do it on your own. It’s your own path of discovery, and question everything.”
Do you find threads in Judaism that relate to your studies of compassion and altruism?
Absolutely. I think one of the reasons why it appealed to me so much is that the starting point of Buddhism is suffering. Life is suffering. There are causes to it that we can know, and there are tools you can use to work with it. There’s a way out. This acknowledgment of suffering is a place of resonance for a lot of Jews. But what you get from Buddhism that you don’t easily get from Judaism is a way out. It offers a path of personal liberation from how you relate to experience and allows you to let go of it and transform it.
Do you think CCT provides tools that could heal our vitriolic, fractured world?
A huge piece of this practice is the cultivation of self-compassion, an area where we have huge deficiencies in the West. Anybody who is working with a challenge in their life can benefit from this. Self-compassion is not about being selfish or narcissistic. It’s about treating yourself the way you would a loved one, someone you care about. When you work with awareness techniques, you start noticing when you are doing things to yourself that are perpetuating your own suffering.
And when you add to self-compassion and mindful awareness this other key ingredient we call “embracing common humanity,” you start to notice what is shared between you and anybody else. There are all these superficial differences: what we believe, where we live, our socioeconomic status, the color of our skin, but underneath it, we’re all just trying to get through life, have a little happiness, and not too much pain.