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Sustainable Prospects – Considering Others and Experimenting – Duchenne de Boulogne

Whilst researching facial expressions and emotions, I became aware of the work of French neurologist, Guillaume Benjamin Amand Duchenne or as he was better known, Duchenne de Boulogne.

“It is only photography, as truthful as a mirror, which could attain such desirable perfection.”

– Duchenne de Boulogne (Joshi, 2017)

In the middle of the nineteenth-century, Duchenne believed that photography could be used to record instantaneous human responses to stimuli. He differed in this opinion to most medical practitioners of the time with this view, as they still believed that drawing was still the best means to illustrate the human body. He strongly believed, despite contemporary thought, that “photography could render the ‘truth’ of his experiments effectively, as the subject’s expressions were too fleeting to be drawn or painted”(Joshi, 2017).

Figure 1: Duchenne de Boulogne

Duchenne’s area of interest, was studying the effect that introducing electric stimulation to the face would have on the appearance of the expression.  He stimulated facial muscles with small electric shocks delivered via electrodes to the faces of 5 volunteers.

Duchenne was researching and experimenting with the therapeutic use of electricity.  He used an alternating current to stimulate certain muscles in the volunteer’s face.  The muscles were stimulated individually with electrodes that applied the current to the skin in a precise place without pain.

During his life, Duchenne discovered several genetic disorders including Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which is named after him.

Figure 2: Duchenne de Boulogne

Duchenne was also the first scientist to identify the facial muscles and through his experiments, show they create our expressions.

In my earlier post, I discussed how a true smile is symmetrical, forming evenly across the face.  Duchenne discovered through his experiments that a true smile of happiness uses the facial muscles on both sides of the face, as well as muscles around the eyes.

This is really useful to know when working with models to produce smiles in images that look genuine and not forced.

Figure 3: Duchenne de Boulogne

Ensuring that the correct muscles are used is key to making sure that the viewer will interpret the intent of the images I produce in the way I want them to be interpreted.

Duchenne began the experiments with 5 volunteers, but most of his images centre around one man. The man was a former shoemaker, who has remained anonymous to this day.  The man suffered from Bell’s Palsy and his facial features were paralysed, meaning that his expression could only be altered when electricity was applied to his facial muscles. He is seen in the majority of Duchenne’s image. The Bell’s Palsy meant that the man did not feel the extent of the pain of the applied electricity as much. Duchenne described the man “as ‘old and ugly’. . . his wrinkled skin responded well to the effects of the current, providing clear delineation of facial expressions.” (Joshi, 2017)

Duchenne applied the electric shocks to the faces of his subject, whilst photographs were taken by Paul Tournachon, son of Félix Nadar. Duchenne carried out over 100 experiments on the shoemaker (Reporters, 2017).  It was through this subject (who had no facial movement of his own) that Duchenne proved that a genuine or true smile is produced by particular facial muscles. According to Reporters, 2017, in “physiology, the authentic smile is called the ‘Duchenne smile’.”

Figure 4: Le Mécanisme de laPhysionomie Humaine is a journal of medical photographs made by Duchenne de Boulogne

An initial trial of applying an electrical stimulus to my own face using a TENS machine did not produce as dramatic an effect as Duchenne produced.  I researched the safety of my machine on the face prior to this experiment.  Ethically, this is an experiment that I had to do on myself as the results and effects were unknown (although my ever-willing husband has volunteered to have this experiment carried out on him).

Figures 5 and 6 were taken with an iPhone 7.  Figure 5 is prior to the TENS machine being turned on and figure 6 was taken when the stimulus was applied to the face.

Figure 5: Sutherst. Neutral. 2017.

Figure 6: Sutherst. With electrical stimulus. 2017.

The electrical stimulus did not hurt, although after less than a minute of use, my muscles ached.  This is due to my muscles working and the electrical pulse going quite deep into the muscle.  An hour later, and the muscles still ache.

The settings on my TENS machine do not provide a single pulse stimulus.  The closest was the acupuncture setting, even though some parts of the cycle offer a continuous pulse. The setting was kept very low as I did not want to create any lasting issues, and I was unsure of the settings to use. This made it hard to replicate what Duchenne produced.

In figure 6, it is clear to see that my eyes narrow and my mouth opens slightly more when the electrical current is applied.  I had no control over this movement. To get the distinct and clear movement of the mouth etc, I think that a smaller electrode pad would be better.  This would give less of a spread to the electrical stimulus and make it more concentrated. A distinct single pulse would also help.

To progress this idea further, I need to investigate a different way to apply the stimulus to the face.  One idea is the CACI Signature Non-Surgical Facial Toning method. This is “an advanced non-invasive facial . . . microcurrent impulses will lift and tone the facial muscles and the neck area, whilst improving skin elasticity and reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.” (CACI International, 2017).  I know a beauty clinic that offers the treatment, but at £50+ a session, I need to weigh up the validity of pursuing this further.


CACI International. (2017). Face Treatments – CACI International. [online] Available at: https://caci-international.co.uk/caci-treatments/face-treatments/ [Accessed 14 Sep. 2017].

Joshi, S. (2017). Duchenne De Boulogne, The Pioneer Of Medical Photography – Better Photography. [online] Betterphotography.in. Available at: http://betterphotography.in/perspectives/great-masters/duchenne-de-boulogne/25736/ [Accessed 14 Sep. 2017].

Reporters, T. (2017). 10 useless but exceedingly interesting facts about 19th-century photography. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/photography/what-to-see/10-useless-but-exceedingly-interesting-facts-about-19th-century/ [Accessed 14 Sep. 2017].


Figures 1 – 4: Joshi, S. (2017). Duchenne De Boulogne, The Pioneer Of Medical Photography – Better Photography. [online] Betterphotography.in. Available at: http://betterphotography.in/perspectives/great-masters/duchenne-de-boulogne/25736/ [Accessed 14 Sep. 2017].


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