By Alex Brown
From songs and movies to books and art, the smile is always emphasized as being one of an individual’s most powerful assets in tackling the world. With abilities ranging from improving wellbeing, to mood elevation; smiling is our unassuming, everyday superpower. But is there any scientific backing to these claims, or is it just hocus pocus?
Research from the University of South Australia has shown that the mind can be tricked into having a more positive outlook simply by moving the facial muscles. The study used covert smiles to assess the differing perceptions of face and body expressions, by looking at participant responses in two scenarios; one where people held a pen between their teeth and one with no pen. When a pen is held between the teeth without touching the lips, the facial muscles are forced to replicate a smile.
The study asked participants to interpret facial expressions, ranging from frowns to smiles, as well as having them interpret point-light motion images, from sad walking to happy walking videos. The interpretations were then evaluated to see how emotion recognition differed between the pen-in teeth and without-pen groups. It was found that when the facial muscles were engaged not only was perception of facial expressions affected, but also body expression, with both generating more positive emotions.
This research could not have come at a better time, with over half of the British population feeling anxious or worried due to the affects of the Covid-19 Pandemic, and significant mental health deterioration seen worldwide.
Lead researcher, and Human and Artificial Cognition expert Dr Fernado Marmoljo-Ramos believes these findings potentially give us important information for improving mental health, he said:
“Our research found that when you forcefully practice smiling, it stimulates the amygdala- the emotional centre of the brain- which releases neurotransmitter to encourage an emotionally positive state. If we can trick the brain into perceiving stimuli as ‘happy’, then we can potentially use this mechanism to boost mental health.”
The findings highlight the strong link between action and perception. Dr Marmolejo-Ramos explains that when we emotionally process stimuli, the perceptual and motor systems are intertwined, meaning ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ may have more truth to it than we originally thought.