Neural Feedback: Smiling

in Uncategorized
February 25th, 2011


In Justin Bieber’s 2010 smash hit ‘U Smile’ he addresses the idea that when “You smile I smile”, obviously deriving his inspiration from recent work by V.S. Ramachandran on the human mirror neuron system. Over 50 years before Justin Bieber’s efforts to bring Ramachandran’s research to the forefront of the media, Dale Carnegie noted in his 1936 masterpiece, How To Win Friends And Influence People, the undeniable positive effects of smiling on the people around you. Carnegie goes on to explain how smiling can actually have a positive affect on the smiler as well. He notes a passage written by the great psychologist William James:

“Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go
together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more
direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which
is not.”

The idea of positive feedback in biological systems was first outlined fully by Norbert Wiener in 1948 during his extensive work in cybernetics. Simply, the process can be described as “A produces more of B which in turn produces more of A.” Most of us would agree that as we experience more positive emotion we tend to smile more. The type of smiling that is caused by positive emotion is real smiling, or Duchenne smiling. This Duchenne smiling uses mouth and eye muscles and can be contrasted to “fake” smiling, where only the mouth muscles are active. That being said, from the logical sequence above if we describe A as “positive emotion” and B as “Duchenne smiling” we can see that as we feel more positive emotions we tend to smile more, which in turn makes us happier, thus restarting the circuit described by William James and Dale Carnegie.
Since there are two forms of smiling, one “fake” form where only the mouth muscles are activated and one “real” or “Duchenne” form where the eye muscles are also activated, is it the activation of the eye muscles that causes the positive feedback to the brain? In that case, are we happier on sunny days, as we have to squint to compensate for the amount of light? This idea that the eye muscles are the key to the feedback circuit could then be drawn out into multiple other hypotheses: Is it possible that people with poor vision enjoy reading more simply because they have to squint leading to the “glasses equals nerd” stereotype? When we are focused on some sort of game, do we squint merely to evoke more positive emotion?
For the past couple of weeks, upon finding myself dozing off in class or simply uninterested in what is being discussed on the blackboard, I have just squinted while trying to understand what is being explained. To be honest, it does help with both emotion and concentration. Maybe it’s worth a try? And if your “first love broke your heart for the first time” as in the case of pop god Justin Bieber, try giving a genuine Duchenne smile. Everyone knows that a good short-circuiting of the body’s pleasure system is fun once in a while.

Additional Reading:

How To Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie

V.S. Ramachandran on Mirror Neurons – Ted.com

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6 Comments on Neural Feedback: Smiling

  • So when your first love breaks your heart, the best thing to do is to go masturbate?

  • Cocaine is good at short-circuiting the reward system too.

    Jesse – are you saying that squinting makes people happier? Have you considered that maybe there is something at play other than squinting when people smile genuinely vs. falsely?

  • Well the main distinction between Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles is the activation of the orbicularis oculi muscle which raises the cheeks and is the same muscle used when one squints. Clearly in any sort of feedback network there are multiple variables influencing the perceived emotion but its just a curious thought. It might be cool for some research to be conducted to determine 1) if there is actually any significant feedback network involving smiling and 2) if there is whether there is a distinction in the feedback between Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiling.

  • Clearly in any sort of feedback network there are multiple variables influencing the perceived emotion but its just a curious thought.

  • Nothing is more intolerable than a wealthy woman.

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