Smile Research

Authentic Duchenne smiles

It’s surprising — it was to me, anyway — how much scientific study has been devoted to smiling.  Charles Darwin and William James were 19th-century science all-stars who took on that topic; Darwin published a book called The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals that, among other things, pointed out the universality of smiles across all cultures.

Darwin’s work was influenced by the earlier studies of a French neurologist.  You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Guillaume Duchenne, but in the mid-1800s he was identifying the muscles of the face, and figuring out how they functioned in creating different expressions.  He acknowledged that there were many different smiles — for instance, there’s the kind you manage to force at a party when you’re offered a homemade appetizer of snake eggs.

After diligent study of facial anatomy, though, Duchenne isolated the combination of muscles used in spontaneous smiling.  He determined that genuine smiles involve contractions of both the zygomatic major muscle and the orbicularis oculi muscle — or, as we have all figured out without benefit of scientific study, real smiles show changes around the eyes as well as the mouth.  To this day, the scientists who study this stuff call the genuine smile a Duchenne smile.

It got to be pretty well established that our brain sends signals to our facial muscle groups, which results in the upturned corners of the mouth, raised cheeks, and crinkles at the edges of the eyes.  Over the last forty years or so, smile researchers have been conducting experiments to see if the direction can be reversed.  In other words, if one forces those facial muscles into an approximation of a smile, can it generate a happy feeling?

The fancy term for this is Facial Feedback Hypothesis, meaning that a facial change can indeed result in an emotion.  A lot of psychologists have earnestly conducted experiments to try to prove it.  In one such study, a group of subjects was instructed to repeatedly make the long “e” sound, while others made a pouty long “u”.  Supposedly the “say ‘cheese'” group was happier afterward than the “*#!% you” group.  To me, the mystery is why both groups weren’t doubled over in derisive laughter at the guys in lab coats.

The notion persists that fake smiles can generate happy feelings, though.  According to a 1989 study, it may have to do with minute changes in chemical activities that are triggered by the constriction of blood vessels in the affected areas.  Or something like that.  Another doctor admitted that it only works in a state of emotional neutrality; artificial smiles can’t make real unhappiness go away. 

I’m not sure I buy the claim I saw on one website that forcing smiles is “a fun way to live longer”, but I guess there’s no real harm in smiling once in a while.  Whether it will result in feelings of happiness is debatable, but at least we could probably benefit from the advice of W.C. Fields, who said, “Start every day with a smile and get it over with.”

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3 responses to “Smile Research

  1. I’m on the fake smile bandwagon. At least once a day I take Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice and on the inhale say “Breathing in, I calm my body,” exhale: “Breathing out, I smile.” Hard to feel unhappy after that!

  2. Thanks for this! It’s amazing what science is revealing about smiles. Did you happen to see the New York Times article today (1/25/2011)? It discusses many of the things you have in this post. Here’s a great reflection on that article – along with a link to the article: http://www.ravenfoundation.org/blogs/the-raven-view/when-you-re-smiling

  3. Thanks, Adam. Both the Raven Foundation post and the article in the NY Times raise interesting points. This is a tangent — it has nothing to do with the science behind smiles — but I recently acquired a camera that recognizes smiles. When the settings are properly adjusted, you frame the shot of your subject and press the shutter. The camera waits to take the photo until the subject smiles! I don’t think it can tell if it’s a real or fake smile, though.

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