June 17, 2016

By Simon Goodacre | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

If you have ever seen an episode of FOX’s Lie to Me, you will have seen the main character, Dr. Lightman, employ his superhuman ability to determine whether someone is telling the truth simply by analyzing their facial expressions. It may seem far-fetched, but did you know that researchers at Brandeis use similar techniques, known as “facial coding,” in their studies?

One of those researchers is Sarah Lupis, PhD’16, who received her doctorate from the Psychology department earlier this year. Lupis studies stress responses in her research by introducing participants to social anxiety provoking situations. “My research focuses on how people react emotionally to stress,” says Lupis, “and whether or not those responses may be adaptive.” Researchers videotape the participants during the tests and code their facial responses afterwards.

“What’s great about the facial coding is that we can actually see the emotion in their faces in the moment, while the stress is happening,” says Lupis. “Participants fill out a questionnaire asking them how they felt during the stress, but by this point, they’ve likely forgotten or may already be using coping strategies that affect how they answer. Of course, they may also just lie (someone may not want to admit that they felt really angry or embarrassed).”

Lupis has seen participants display a wide range of emotions during the tests. “It’s amazing to see the differences in how people react—since the stress lasts 15 minutes, you may even see one person change throughout, cycling between fear, anger, shame, contempt, etc. Needless to say, I’ve seen a lot of faces!” Researchers have to watch the participants closely to record their responses accurately. “You might see something like a furrow of an eyebrow,” says Lupis. “On its own it’s not a meaningful muscle movement, but combine that with a slight widening of the eye and you’ve got yourself an anger expression.”

The study of stress has enormous repercussions for public health. Long-term stress takes a toll on the body, a fact that has been well documented over a long period of time. Short-term stress can actually be beneficial—such as the “fight or flight” response—which “can help you deal with an immediate threat, and might even save your life,” says Lupis. One of the problems with modern living is that these stress responses become activated for purely psychological reasons, such as being stuck in a traffic jam, public speaking, or having a fight with a spouse. “Since, for most people, these situations happen so often, the stress systems are repeatedly and chronically activated,” says Lupis. “Over time, this causes wear and tear on the body that contributes to many negative health consequences including depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

Lupis came to Brandeis knowing that she wanted to study biological psychology. She became interested in the research of Dr. Jutta Wolf, a researcher in the Laboratory for Biological Health Psychology at Brandeis. “It was easy to see how great the Psychology program was at Brandeis,” says Lupis, “and after meeting Dr. Wolf in person we realized that it could be a great mutual fit. When I realized I was interested in the emotion-stress aspect, she had me trained and certified in facial coding and I was on my way!”

Now that she has graduated, Lupis is teaching at Brandeis as part of the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program. She is also an adjunct lecturer at Hellenic College Holy Cross. “I love my research,” she says, “but teaching fulfills me in a different and important way. Ideally, my long-term plans will have me doing both.” Teaching at other universities has given her a better perspective on Brandeis, which she describes as “a special place.” “The students are obviously impressive from an academic standpoint,” she says, “but also tend to be just good citizens of the world. I think this is a testament to Brandeis; the faculty and administration are passionate, invested, and committed to helping their students succeed in all aspects. My advisor and department provided the most supportive environment I could have hoped for, and I know that they played a great role in my graduate success.”