A tale involving the emotion of awe & Duchenne de Boulogne

The emotion of awe is such an odd one: the face & body reveal nothing, but the internal experience is nonetheless very concrete. This week I had one of the most powerful experiences of awe that I have ever had in a very special library at the ICM [Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle épinière]. Yet, no one else around me would have ever known that – not even my colleague Nathalie who was standing right beside me.

La Bibliothèque Charcot is a repository of around 3,500 neurological works from the 19th century, including theses. At it’s core is the personal library of the celebrated neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot [1825-1893], donated in 1907 by his son, Jean-Baptiste Charcot. The library has had a number of homes over the years, but is now housed in the ICM. [http://www.upmc.fr/fr/culture/patrimoine/patrimoine_scientifique/bibliotheque_charcot.html]. The library features a ‘book of the month’, where one or more of it’s rare tomes is displayed for all to view. This month’s book by Duchenne de Boulogne was at the heart of my awesome experience. [A pity this word is so abused today. It has lost it’s original meaning, which I am trying to invoke in this last sentence.]


This so-called ‘box of mischief’ from Duchenne de Boulogne is one of the cornerstones in the science of emotion literature – a monograph on his studies of emotional expressions generated by the electrical stimulation of selected muscles of the human face.

Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne [de Boulogne] (1806-1875) was actually Charcot’s senior colleague & teacher. Duchenne is considered by many to be the ‘father of neurology’ [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duchenne_de_Boulogne]. He was based at the L’Hôpital Salpêtrière in Paris, then a powerhouse of neurology [where the ICM is located today]. His most famous monograph was entitled: ‘Mécanisme de la physionomie humaine. ou, Analyse électro-physiologique de l’expression des passions des arts plastiques“. It was published in 1862 & was a groundbreaking & memorable publication for a number of reasons – not least that it influenced Charles Darwin’s famous monograph ‘The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals‘, which was published 10 years later. Duchenne’s monograph combined lengthy verbal descriptions of his electrical stimulation studies with photographs of the facial muscle stimulation. That is what is so astounding to me about this monograph. Photography was but a nascent art & science at the time & to use it to demonstrate a study of science was incredibly avant garde & revolutionary, not to mention being a technological tour-de-force! As a scientist & also photographer this is what has always been truly awe-inspiring about this monograph for me.

I have regularly used the images & material from this book in lectures for a number of years now – thanks to a modern source: R. Andrew Cuthbertson translated Duchenne’s tome into English, which was published by Cambridge University Press, in 1990. It is still available today in paperback.


Some of the photographs in the monograph are quite unsettling [such as the photo on the cover shown above]. Electrical stimulation to evoke a muscle contraction can be very painful – particularly when the muscle is contracted for a prolonged period of time [necessary for taking a photograph in the early 1860s]. Duchenne experimented on his patients. The most photographed individual [shown above] was a patient who had an absence of sensation in the face. This meant that the man’s face could be electrically stimulated to produce contractions in various facial muscles without the experience of pain [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%A9canisme_de_la_physionomie_humaine].

The exhibit in the Charcot Library featured 2 exemplars of Duchenne’s famous monograph & the books have that characteristic smell that old tomes usually have… One of the books was actually a publisher’s proof [see image below], and that was what caused my reaction of awe.


Looking at the tome with all of the edits was truly amazing because for a moment I felt like I was there with Duchenne, looking on as he labored energetically, but legibly, making corrections in ink. The intensity of the experience was no doubt magnified by the fact that the library is located in the grounds of L’Hôpital Salpêtrière – Duchenne’s workplace. There was also an incredible irony to the situation: my experience of awe, linked to viewing this ‘bible’ of facial expressions, was actually associated with no facial or bodily expressions of my part. This immensely rich and emotional experience all took place in my inner mental world. That is surely something to contemplate for a long-time student of the brain bases of facial movements & expressions…

Hopefully, reading about all of this just might make you smile. I hope that it is not just any smile, but a real ‘Duchenne smile’… [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smile].  :)))





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