Smile and the World Smiles With You

New research shows that smiling affects the way our brains process other people’s emotions.

An international team of researchers have found that when we smile it actually changes the way our brains process other people’s emotions.

Led by researchers in the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Unit (CNRU), City University London, the paper – which is published in the journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience – provides novel evidence that our own emotions can influence the way the brain processes other people’s observed expressions.

Speaking about the research, Professor Tina Forster, head from the CNRU at Psychology Department, City University London, said: “We have shown for the first time that early neural processing of other’s faces is modulated depending on our own facial expression. Our work shows support for the colloquial phrase that ‘if you smile, the world will smile back to you’, as when other people smile we found that participant’s brains process a neutral face as if it was smiling.”

Asking participants to adopt either a happy or a neutral facial expression as they looked at photographs of faces that were either smiling or showing a neutral expression, the team used a technique called EEG (electroencephalography) to measure changes in brain activity for the 25 participants in the study. Focusing on two spikes of electrical activity that are unique to the processing of faces in the brain that typically occur between 150 and 170 milliseconds after looking at a face, known as the VPP and N170, the team noticed that when making a happy expression, neutral faces are processed similarly to happy faces.

“I think this effect occurs because there is a close link between the body and our mind,” said Professor Forster. “The fact that when we smile we also interpret neutral expressions as smiling too shows how information coming from our body can influence our cognition. Some therapists have already made use of this particular phenomena by asking their clients to exercise smiling throughout the day. However, I think we need more research to understand this effect in people with mood disorders or certain predispositions.”

This image shows a smiling woman.
The study provides novel evidence that our own emotions can influence the way the brain processes other people’s observed expressions. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

In the future, Professor Forster and others at City are looking to investigate the role our body and body representations in our brain play in cognition.

“Together with Drs Beatriz Calvo-Merino (co-author in the paper mentioned above) and, Ansgar Endress, we recently won some funding in the City University Research Competition to further explore how we can enhance emotion sensitivity in dance. This project will involve dance performers and us scientists working together to find a new approach to develop performing arts,” she said.

[divider]About this emotion and psychology research[/divider]

Source: George Wigmore – City University London
Image Credit: Image is in the public domain
Original Research: Abstract for “When you smile, the world smiles at you: ERP evidence for self-expression effects on face processing” by Alejandra Sel, Beatriz Calvo-Merino, Simone Tuettenberg and Bettina Forster in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Published online June 2015 doi:10.1093/scan/nsv009


Abstract

When you smile, the world smiles at you: ERP evidence for self-expression effects on face processing

Current models of emotion simulation propose that intentionally posing a facial expression can change one’s subjective feelings, which in turn influences the processing of visual input. However, the underlying neural mechanism whereby one’s facial emotion modulates the visual cortical responses to other’s facial expressions remains unknown. To understand how one’s facial expression affects visual processing, we measured participants’ visual evoked potentials (VEPs) during a facial emotion judgment task of positive and neutral faces. To control for the effects of facial muscles on VEPs, we asked participants to smile (adopting an expression of happiness), to purse their lips (incompatible with smiling) or to pose with a neutral face, in separate blocks. Results showed that the smiling expression modulates face-specific visual processing components (N170/vertex positive potential) to watching other facial expressions. Specifically, when making a happy expression, neutral faces are processed similarly to happy faces. When making a neutral expression or pursing the lips, however, responses to neutral and happy face are significantly different. This effect was source localized within multisensory associative areas, angular gyrus, associative visual cortex and somatosensory cortex. We provide novel evidence that one’s own emotional expression acts as a top-down influence modulating low-level neural encoding during facial perception.

“When you smile, the world smiles at you: ERP evidence for self-expression effects on face processing” by Alejandra Sel, Beatriz Calvo-Merino, Simone Tuettenberg and Bettina Forster in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Published online June 2015 doi:10.1093/scan/nsv009

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