This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 32 – September 1998
Everybody does it! Consciously or unconsciously, everyone gives a psychological meaning to new faces, and judges character subjectively. From earliest time, the “mirror of the soul” has enticed Man to find the key that could unlock its psychological secrets. To cover the many methods of face-reading, Aristotle created the umbrella name Physiognomy.
Physiognomy suffers from serious limitations though. At its best, it is a rather innocent parlour game; at its worst it can, and did, become a dangerous system used by racists to justify their fascist ideologies. The problem with physiognomy lies in its way of classifying isolated features with their corresponding psychological translations. From this catalogue of features, we get the ridiculous notion that the shape of our nose or the lobes of our ears will reveal our whole personality. The face is seen as a mosaic, a patchwork of juxtaposed features, each of them possessing a psychological meaning. The result is a static analysis made of unconnected traits that fails to convey the dynamic and synthetic characteristics of our psychic life.
A radical departure from the physiognomical method was made when, in 1937, the relationship between form and character was placed in the realm of methodical science by Dr Louis Corman (1901-1995). A French physicist who studied with Marie Curie, physician and psychiatrist Dr Corman coined the word Morphopsychology to distinguish his method of “face-reading” from the antiquated and reductionist Physiognomy.
Morphopsychology is a mouthful of a word, but if you split it in two and translate it from the Greek, it makes sense and loses its jawbreaking effect. Morpho-psychology is made of morphe, meaning form, and psychology, the science of the human mind: Morphopsychology is the study of the relationship between form (especially of the face) and character.
My long interest in the relationship between form and function led me to the study of Morphopsychology; I graduated in 1984 after three years of study and practice. I was fortunate to have some personal correspondence with Dr Corman, in which he told me that Anglo-Saxons do not seem to take the art and science of reading character from features of the face seriously, and that they (especially Americans) have not progressed from the obsolete Physiognomy.
Dr Corman encouraged me to propagate Morphopsychology in Great Britain. Due to my poor English and to my talent for procrastination, I have never done anything serious about it. Ten years later, with a slightly better command of the English language, I feel it is time to pay tribute to the humanist Dr Corman, by writing some introductory words about Morphopsychology.
The first stepping stone that led to the foundation of Morphopsychology was laid when, in the 30s, Dr Corman studied the living form according to the conception of Dr Claude Sigaud. The latter was a physician who used to attach great importance to body shapes. From his clinical observations, he drew the dilation-retraction law:
in a favourable environment an organism expands and dilates producing a rounded, open form (DILATION)
in a hostile milieu it shrivels and retracts presenting a lean and angular shape (RETRACTION)
Shape then is the result of an interaction between the inner vital force meeting the forces of the outside world. Thus, in spite of its apparent immobility, form is essentially dynamic, being at the meeting point of these two opposite forces. This idea of movement is very important and must be constantly in the mind of the morphopsychologist. The understanding of this dual movement gives a dynamic vision into personality, while reflecting the unification of body and mind.
From this confrontation between the vital push from within and the outer resistance of the milieu, living forms are moulded into two basic types: Dilated or Retracted. We start life with some inherited capital of dilation or retraction that will be reinforced or decreased during our life-time, according to the kind of milieu in which we move.
These two opposite types have two different ways of reacting to the stresses of the external milieu, expressing a sensitivity particular to their basic shapes:
Dilated types are hyposensitive with weak defensive reactions, absorbing all the elements of the environment with little discernment
Retracted types are hypersensitive with acute defensive reactions, withdrawing from the harmful (or perceived as such) elements of the environment
Contrary to accepted ideas, Dr Sigaud discovered the important biological fact that the process of retraction was not an atrophy, a lack of vitality or a passive movement, but a vital, active phenomenon, betraying a strong self-preserving instinct and an acute sensitivity to harmful influences.
Dr Corman, already versed in Physiognomy, saw in this Dilation/Retraction law the rational, scientific explanation that was lacking in empirical Physiognomy. He then had the idea to relate these two opposite vital movements to his concept of the two primary instincts of life: the instinct of self-preservation and the instinct of expansion, a vital élan that makes an organism grow, enlarge, develop, and progress. These two instincts represent the dual movement of life. The predominance of the instinct of expansion produces the dilated types; the predominance of the instinct of self-preservation, the retracted types.
From this apparently banal law of Dilation/Retraction Dr Corman developed a method of face-reading radically divorced from Physiognomy. Morphopsychology is a fascinating tool for reading and interpreting the language of form, in a subtle, dynamic and synthetic way. It represents a new and important method of understanding oneself and others in depth, without the bias of subjective moral judgment.
That’s all for this month, but I hope that I have titillated your curiosity because in the next issue I am going to write again about Morphopsychology from, this time, a more practical angle.