Think of something wonderful - something someone said to you that made your day, or the happiest moment you can remember. Go ahead, take a moment. Now, what are you doing? Odds are, you're smiling.
It takes 12 different muscles in our faces to produce the easily-recognized expression. But smiling is far from a tough feat for our facial muscles. Smiles are so hard-wired into the human condition that babies have been known to smile before birth. Smiling is as instinctual to us as breathing.
Why do we smile? In part, smiling is a social action. We smile to let others know how we feel. Facial expressions are a means of communication, not only in people but also in a variety of animals. But there's a lot more to it than that. It has been suggested for a long time that smiling is both the end result of happy feelings and a direct cause of them. It's known as the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. The theory is that because there is such a tight connection between expression of emotion and the brain mechanism that feels them, the path can go the other way, too. In other words, Nat King Cole was right that you should smile when your heart is breaking, as doing so might actually make you feel better.
Scientists have looked into the Facial Feedback Hypothesis, and have found strong support for it from studies which look at emotions before and after paralysis, for example. Now, a new study to be published in the journal Psychological Science has further added to this: they found that preventing people from frowning affected their ability to understand negative emotions in written language.
The participants of the study were people who had been treated with botulinum toxin. Botulinum toxin powerful nerve toxin originally from the bacteria Clostridium botulinum that used to be a huge health problem before the onset of refrigeration. Of course, now, it is more well known for its cosmetic uses. Botox, which consists of small injections of botulinum toxin to reduce wrinkles, is the most common cosmetic operation performed in the US, with 4.6 million procedures performed in 2007 alone, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
The scientists took 40 people and had them read written statements before and after they received Botox. The cosmetic procedure prevented them from frowning properly, and thus gave the researchers a unique opportunity to see how the inability to produce a facial expression affected the participants. The statements were either angry, sad, or happy. After reading the statement, the participants had to press a button to indicate they had finished reading it. The researchers timed how long it took the participants to read the different kinds of sentences before and after their Botox, then compared the times.
Speed of processing is a common tool in psychological research. Scientists have shown that, for example, people with racial biases take longer to associate minorities with positive words. By timing how long the participants took to read the sentences, the researchers looked to uncover if the lack of ability to frown affected their ability to understand and interpret the different emotional phrases.
They found that there was no change in the time needed to understand the happy sentences, which aligned with their hypotheses, since the Botox did not prevent the participants from smiling. But the subjects did take slightly but significantly more time to read the angry and sad sentences after Botox treatment. These data suggest that preventing the participants from frowning actually made it harder for them to interpret sadness and anger.
The scientist believe that by preventing frowns in their participants, they have blocked a feedback pathway between the brain and the face. Under normal circumstances, the brain sends the signal to frown, and in turn, once the face frowns, it sends signals back which reaffirm or enhance the brain's interpretation. Without the feedback, the brain gets a little confused or simply doesn't process the depth of the emotion as well.
Even though the affect is small, it may have profound implications for cosmetic surgery. People who undergo facial procedures may have altered perceptions of others emotions. Of course, it could be a good thing - these kind of injections may make a person's outlook on life a little better.
What's groundbreaking about this study is that it strongly connects language and emotion so strongly to physical movements. The idea that the ability to understand language can be hindered by preventing physical movements is impressive and a little unexpected. This study suggests that to properly understand and interpret the world around us, that we need both our minds and our bodies to be functioning 100%.
Monday, February 8, 2010