The Contagious Smile
Many of us often feel that smiling can be irresistibly contagious, but is this actually true?
In fact, a recent study published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences adds to a growing body of evidence that indicates that other people’s expressions really can have a tangible impact on our mood. The study authors, Dr. Paula Niedenthal and Adrienne Wood, found that we instinctively mimic other people’s faces, triggering the associated expressions.
This serves as a way for people to learn to empathize and to better read others by literally trying on their facial expressions. Amazingly this process can happen in only a few hundred milliseconds.
As Dr. Niedenthal said, “You reflect on your emotional feelings and then you generate some sort of recognition judgment, and the most important thing that results is that you take the appropriate action–you approach the person or you avoid the person.”
While they did not report exactly how this works in our brain, their results are reminiscent of previous research on the use of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are brain cells that are triggered, when we see other people’s actions. This can include facial expressions and many neurologists see mirror neurons as the key to explaining how we experience empathy.
However, the authors mentioned that this critical skill is not accessible to everyone, including those who have social disorders or challenges presenting facial expressions. Dr. Niedenthal pointed out that “There are some symptoms in autism where lack of facial mimicry may in part be due to suppression of eye contact.”
This is an exciting connection, given recent research that has shown that an autistic individual often struggles to empathize due to the inability to recognize faces and emotions. If an autistic individual has trouble even recognizing another person’s facial expression, it is that much more difficult to mimic it and thus empathize.
Similarly, Humintell has previously worked to draw attention to those who live with Moebius Syndrome. Those with this condition experience a form of facial paralysis that makes it impossible to display facial expressions. This causes challenges relating interpersonally as the lack of expression makes emotional communication challenging.
Presumably, from Dr. Niedenthal and Dr. Wood’s research, this also prevents effective facial mimicry for both the person with Moebius Syndrome and their interlocutor.
Thankfully, as we have discussed, reading facial expressions is not merely an innate ability on which we cannot improve. Instead, we can learn to better recognize people’s expressions and emotions.