Highbrow Eyebrow

I never paid much attention to eyebrows, before, although I kind of thought they might be important. Anything that waves at you, or moves suspiciously when you walk into a room has to be taken seriously, watched carefully for subtle changes. But mine, at least, don’t command much attention, let alone fear. In fact, for years they were just another inventory item in the mirror -two of the many features of my face that I never thought to criticize. Like Goldilocks’ baby bear, they were neither too big, nor too small, and as far as I could tell, they offended no one -myself included. But I guess most of us call a truce with our faces after a while.

And yet, eyebrows, far from being shy, sometimes dominate features: everything from unibrows, to bushes that would not be out of place hanging beneath a nose. Still, tidy or unruly, I have to say I rarely paid much attention to them until they were pointed out to me. Faces are faces, and come in all varieties of hair. All permutations of colour. And unless they are particularly scary or lupinesque I scarcely notice.

Admittedly, some personalities, like Groucho Marx, capitalized on bits of mobile facial hair that were impossible to miss, but on most of us, they are as unremarkable as trees on a boulevard, or hedges that line a sidewalk. Few of us sport bouquets above our eyes, and fewer still have eyes that have to peek out from behind cloistering branches like nuns in a convent. Eyebrows are just that -tiny leftovers from a scalp that at one time owned the face. Evolution drove it away, but for some reason missed the patch above the eyes.

Maybe eyebrows are meant to be background, though. Like cheeks and foreheads, they are simply there, hiding backstage and prompting the face with silent signals. Atavistic remnants of our early hominid origins, but now largely vestigial and decorative.

However, as usual, I underestimated my face -well, faces writ large, I guess: https://theconversation.com/the-evolutionary-advantage-of-having-eyebrows-94599

It seems they do more than just stopping dandruff from accumulating on the eyelashes. More than protecting the eyes from rain, or gravitationally unstable sunscreen applications. Far more. After reading the article, I must admit I felt as if I had missed out on a lot of social life -I never learned to use them properly I don’t think. It’s embarrassing, to say the least, although perhaps there were other reasons I couldn’t get dates. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, they were silently signalling stuff to other more canny faces that I should be ashamed of.

I suppose I should have guessed, though. I mean, ‘[…] archaic humans possessed a pronounced and very distinctive brow ridge which contrasts with our own flat and vertical foreheads. […] Research has already shown that humans today unconsciously raise their eyebrows briefly when they see someone at a distance to show we are not a threat. And we also lift our eyebrows to show sympathy with others – a tendency noticed by Darwin in the 19th century.’

I didn’t know that, nor did I suspect that it had anything to do with brow ridges. ‘The brow ridges in archaic humans also serve no obvious function in relation to chewing or other practical mechanics – a theory commonly put forward to explain protruding brow ridges. […] This means that brow ridges in archaic humans must have had a social function – most likely used to display social dominance as is seen in other primates.

‘For our species losing the brow ridge probably meant looking less intimidating, but by developing flatter and more vertical foreheads our species could do something very unusual – move our eyebrows in all kinds of subtle and important ways.’

As I read through the article, my heart sank: I have no idea how to work an eyebrow. I think maybe I would have fared a lot better if there weren’t so many choices. In the old system, at least I could have brushed up on the dominance display thing and taken my chances on the dance floor without having to memorize complicated maneuvers for both my feet and also my face, neither of which I could ever hope to coordinate at the same time.

But from a historical perspective, apparently ‘[…] these marked changes in the face occurred at a time when the emergence of important social changes began to take place. Mainly the collaboration between distantly related groups of humans. […] So the impact of friendly and mutually supportive relationships with people outside one’s own group were far reaching. And the development of mobile eyebrows may have been a key part of all these changes.’

I still think somebody should have warned me, though. Maybe there should be special classes in school along with Social Studies or Health… Uhmm, do they still teach those? I mean, if I’m signalling willy-nilly with uncontrolled eyebrows, who knows what messages I’ve been sending all these years. Thank goodness all we do is text each other nowadays.

But, I suppose there is some good news for me in all of this. Tagged on at the very end of the article, almost as an addendum, was a report on wolves -well, okay, dogs– and what evolution cooked up for their survival. Who knew dogs had eyebrows -and how would you spot them even if you did? ‘But these changes weren’t just exclusive to humans – the developments seen when wolves became domesticated are in some ways similar. Dogs have more waggy tails and flatter faces than wolves. And dogs who are better able to look cuter by raising their brows are more likely to be selected from shelters.’

I’m tempted to practice this simple, but apparently effective move in the mirror. How hard can it be to learn to raise my eyebrows when I’m talking to somebody? If I can get the moves down pat, and arrange a few face-to-face encounters on the bus, I don’t think it would be unrealistic to expect some dinner invitations to come texting in. I’m not sure about wagging my tail, however.

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