Smiling Affects The Way Brain Processes Other People’s Emotions

When you smile it actually changes the way your brain processes other people’s emotions, an international team of researchers has found.

Professor Tina Forster, of 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.”

The paper, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, provides unique evidence that our own emotions can influence the way the brain processes other people’s observed expressions.

Researchers asked the study 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 electroencephalography (EEG) 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.”

Professor Forster and others at the University are hoping to investigate in the future the role our body and body representations in our brain play in cognition.

Alejandra Sel, Beatriz Calvo-Merino, Simone Tuettenberg, and Bettina Forster
When you smile, the world smiles at you: ERP evidence for self-expression effects on face processing
Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci first published online February 24, 2015 doi:10.1093/scan/nsv009

Photo: Nikos Koutoulas/flickr