Robots don’t yawn

FACE ANIMATRONICS ROBOT interview_gustav_08As we are about to enter the robot age the mechanical face peers back at us perhaps as a robonurse helping us into a hospital bed. Twilight time when the balance is gone and gravity is horizontal. We stare into this mechanical face seeking comfort and perhaps hope. If you have to build a face that responds that reaffirms the compassion what design considerations do the Disney animatronics engineers consider? What does our face do anyways, just convey emotions or how does this facial language express itself universally across all cultures? Is there such a thing as common facial language that needs no Google translation to function ? Let’s examine the facial yawn as the most common of all human expressions, the unique link between every person on our Planet including all mammalian life.


















When an Apollo 11 astronaut like Buzz Aldrin yawns what is his face showing ?

Is he bored, is he tired, is he trying to engage his brain to get more alert, is he copying a nearby technician yawning or is he doing something else, something Einsteinian, in terms of its magnitude of performance -its relativity.  Do astronauts yawn when they are on their space missions, in other words do you need gravity to yawn ?

facial muscles anatomyHuman faces have a big number of muscles controlling the face as it yawns. The number of muscles is close to 58 plus minus, including the neck because everything is attached. How are these muscles designed ?

Are the muscles designed to support antigravity effects ?

What unique design works both without gravity and with gravity ? Tensional integrity or as I have referred in previous essays as tensegrity, a la Snelson via Buckminister Fuller via Donald Ingber is how Nature has solved this reference to the pull of gravity.

Weight especially mass is handled elegantly within tensegrity within a compression web of balanced forces under tension with compression equilibrium, suspended in a distributed fashion. The bonus is tensegrity contains the measure to store energy sensing changes acting to shift its shape under strain conditions. Local forces are sensed at a distance.  Nature accomplishes this intelligence using tensegrity as its design matrix. Shape is at the core of the DNA molecule and shape is at the core of analyzing the immediate environment. This is how shape sensing functions. The very first requirement of a single creature in the ocean is to establish what is up what is down and where is the horizon, life is organized around gravity.  At the end gravity wins we- no longer can move we stop -we lie down on the surface and we die. Gravity always wins.


When Jessica Rabbit yawns the eyes close the mouth rises open, deep inspiration pause then expiration. That’s what we notice as the main sequence simplistically cartoon fashion. But the real thing is so much denser richer than this illusion.

But the human face also evolves in time aging changing shape changing tension. Changing shape with disease, like autism and epilepsy. Life paints its effects across its surface leaving its passing in the bones below those tensegrity surfaces

FACE MOVING IN AGE image007The small movie animation shows the dynamics of shape dimensions moving in time in a child.


But what really is in motion are the bones that are beneath the skin and muscle. As we age our face moves in relation to the effects of gravity, hence the muscles are termed antigravity for the support they give. But the bones do drift, in their position in their dimensions. The skin is like a stretched membrane over the surface behaving in the floating tension fashion. Unlike the robots the attachments are not separated like mechanical pieces that fit onto each other, their shapes are embedded since the bone is in shape conversation to the brain, within a communication net. The face is now no longer a covering -the shape of the face is a code of information for the current state of the brain. On a terminal cancer ward experienced nurses can immediately tell when things make a turn for the worse, simply by looking at their patients faces. A European twin study confirmed this observation in the British Medical Journal, the older looking twin will always die sooner, always. The younger looking twin will outlive the older looking twin. Age is expressed as the metric of shape of the face, predictive toward the slid to oblivion.

Perceived age as clinically useful biomarker of ageing:cohort study BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 13 December 2009) 

  1. Kaare Christensen, professor1,
  2. Mikael Thinggaard, mathematician1,
  3. Matt McGue, professor12,
  4. Helle Rexbye, research fellow1,
  5. Jacob v B Hjelmborg, associate professor1,
  6. Abraham Aviv, professor3,
  7. David Gunn, postdoctoral scientist4,
  8. Frans van der Ouderaa, vice president corporate research 4, director of business development6,
  9. James W Vaupel, professor5

Author Affiliations

  1. 1Danish Twin Registry and Danish Aging Research Center, Institute of Public Health, University of Southern Denmark, DK-5000 Odense C, Denmark

  2. 2Department of Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA

  3. 3Center of Human Development and Aging, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, New Jersey Medical School, Newark, NJ, USA

  4. 4Unilever Discover, Colworth House, Sharnbrook, Bedfordshire

  5. 5Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany

  6. 6Netherlands Consortium for Healthy Ageing, Leiden University Medical Centre Leiden, LUMC, 2300RC Leiden, Netherlands

But what is wrong with the Jessica Rabbit’s image yawning ? We don’t normally turn our heads when we yawn-we tend to face forward which is part of the facial muscle pattern specifically stabilizing the head by facing forward employing the suboccipital muscles at the back/base of the neck. But notice their configuration, their attachments. They are part of a tensegrity net that makes our bodies move so effortlessly in gravity.

Suboccipital_muscles06The positioning suggests a pivoting, by centering the head when these muscles are activated during a yawn motion sequence. That is the bonus feature that exists with tensegrity structures -they have a built in torquing that positions into a preferred central balance position. Let’s look down the body to the contact point onto the surface. When we look at the capacity of how the human foot has muscles linked into fascia with load dispersal coupled to mobility, what is loosely described as proprioception how does this information contribute to balance? It is at this exact contact interaction that we walk, or run or slip in our daily motion trying to balance the body above to not slip and fall. The brain needs to know where gravity points otherwise we are reduced to crawling on hands and knees child style.

The pattern of occipital muscles has a tensegrity attachment aspect to it, which is how all the muscles function around the skeleton. But the same architecture exists in the soft pliable tissue, even our brain. All these cells are positioned to perform tensegrity style. That’s how they grow in the embryo. If all this performance doesn’t make you gasp in wonder then you must be a very bored person.

tensegrity1 occiput musclesAbove all else a yawn utilizing 58 muscles is a very coordinated event that depends on a series of hierarchical communication systems. First the vestibular system has to be present for the existence of the entire balance to detect the essence of the matrix of space that exists around the body in a three-dimensional space. Just ask robot engineers how difficult the task of getting a robot to walk is, let alone stand on a ball like a child can.

Balance by Free the Robots  For a robot to balance itself it has to sense its center of mass via a gyroscope. What my point in this essay is the link between the face and the vestibular system is like a calibration of the gyroscope to the X-Y-Z of coordinate space as a simulation.

The world we see exists as a simulation in our mind. All jerkiness of vision is smoothed out into a streaming scene before us. Yet the permanence of gravity is the measure of how we interpret the world around us. As we age we lose our balance. We get stiff we sway more overcorrecting. Will we wear robots around our torso to help us move easily in this gravity space? Will robonurses help us when we can no longer rise from the bed ? What is balance? Where is the horizon? is perhaps at the very existence of intelligent life examining its position in 3 dimensional space. If a person suffers a brain concussion loosing balance is a singular first part of the injury to the brain, our inner gyyro is not stable. If you want to understand a brain concussion you must understand first what gravity means to our movement. Then how we balance in that matrix of space. But you have to link into gravity space. To do that we must tell our brain where gravity is pointing. Like a gyro we must know where up is where the opposite direction which is down. Then forward versus backward, finally left versus right. All life has evolved within a gravity field. For Nature not to calibrate itself to the gravity vector does not make sense. That’s the reason that I call this the Gravity-Space -Time reflex. When you look at the centers in the brain that are immediately affected due to gravity the fos genes reveal the effect of space flown mice brain zones. Fos is activation of dopamine receptors in this fos response. When you look at the pattern of exposure to the brain zones they overlap within the yawning circuits. In order to yawn you need both gravity and a system to orient to the gravity field. To balance our brain in gravity we yawn. But since it’s a facial display associated with boredom or sleep or intimacy or sexual desire we dismiss it as not important, as even embarrassing. As a connection for the very deep inspiration occurring with a yawn within the muscarinic receptors of the muscles from the respiratory neurons in the medulla, the motor nuclei of the cranial nerves V, VII, IX, X, and the XII are all involved. There is this whole choreography of elaboration like one of Montreal’s own Cirque de Soleil artistic performances, but this time its our very own face that is the mega star of the spectacle. Gravity is always the main component of any Cirque de Soleil show as much as it is for the audience too. The show of gravity is within the membrane mask of our face.

Cirque-du-Soleil-facesWe have evolved an entire language of the face that sweeps borders away, linking all families into one. The face is neither one language or the other but this astonishing motion against gravity, contortions expressing emotion from shape changes deep in the architecture of the brain design. This scaling of shape from DNA to link the mobile web of the face is one continuous net of information felt at the level of intuition. But for the whole display show to work the force of gravity must be primed. Our brain performs a yawn the face reflex harmonizing to the direction of gravity. It really is  Einsteinian in its breadth of performance in its elegance of execution. And yet we dismiss a yawn as something trivial.


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Montreal Grandmother, Agnes Kent was saved by Raul Wallenberg from certain death, when he provided papers for her and her Mom to escape away from the Nazis. Today when asked what that escape meant, she replied,"Remind people, that while statesmen and whole countries remained silent and did nothing, a single individual chose to act, with ramifications that proved enormous. Similar choices confront us today. Write that simple truth she said, it can never be repeated often enough because the world keeps forgetting it."
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