Smiling Changes How You View the World

Man reading newspaper
Photo: George Marks/(c) George Marks

Back in the 19th century, the great American psychologist William James proposed that our facial expressions and other bodily changes are not the consequence of our emotional feelings, but the cause. Something positive happens, you smile, and this — that is, the act of smiling rather than the event itself — causes you to feel joy. Modern science has partially backed this up – there’s evidence that smiling can lift your mood, and in one study, women who had botox treatment, stiffening their facial muscles, show less emotional activity in their brains.

There’s also evidence that our facial expressions change the way we perceive the world. In the 1980s, for example, researchers showed that people found cartoons funnier when they bit a pen in a way that exercised the facial muscles that are involved in smiling (and found the cartoons less funny when they pouted). More recently, psychologists at the University of Sussex in England reported that when we smile, we see other people’s frowns as less severe, and that when we frown we see their smiling faces as less happy.

Now, in a new paper in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, a research team based in London and Madrid has further explored the possibility that when we smile it actually changes the way our brains process other people’s emotions. To do this, they used a technique called EEG (electroencephalography) to record the brainwaves of 25 participants as they looked at photographs of faces that were either smiling or showing a neutral expression.

Specifically, the researchers, led by Dr. Tina Forster at the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Unit at City University London, focused on two spikes of electrical activity in the brain that typically occur between 150 and 170 milliseconds after looking at a face, known as the VPP and N170, respectively. These particular spikes are unique to the processing of faces, and are more pronounced when the faces in question have emotional expressions, as compared to neutral ones.

When the participants adopted a neutral facial expression themselves, Sel’s team found that these signatures were enhanced after looking at happy faces compared with neutral faces – just as we’d expect. But what’s especially intriguing is that when the participants smiled, their neural activity was enhanced just the same whether they looked at neutral faces or smiley faces. In other words, when the participant smiled, their brain processed, or partially processed, a neutral face as if it were smiling. 

The researchers say their results provide “novel evidence for a fundamental role of one’s own facial expressions in the visual processing of the observed facial expressions of other people and provides support for the colloquial phrase that ‘if you smile, the world will smile back to you.’” It’s just the latest finding in a fascinating field of research. A German study from 2000, for example, showed when people were instructed to frown, they rated celebrities (depicted in photos) as less famous. The idea is that frowning simulates the experience of effort, which tricks the brain into thinking the celebrity is not so familiar.

Taken together, these studies show how our own emotions can lead to spiraling effects. Imagine arriving nervously at a party with a frown on your face and how that could negatively affect your feelings of familiarity when mixing with the other guests. Conversely, arrive with a smile and you’re likely to view other people’s facial expressions through a positive lens. And just think: If you can make other guests at the party smile, you might actually be changing how they see the world. 

Dr. Christian Jarrett is editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.