Having a tough day? Smile, you’ll feel better

By Marie Rogers

When you think about your conscious self, the “I” that controls the decisions that you make, where do you think of it residing? Most peoples’ intuitive feeling about the mind and body is that they are separate entities.  We often see abstract thought and reasoning as somehow separate from, and uninfluenced by, the physical body.

However, in psychology, the theory that cognition is embodied is gaining popularity. This is the idea that not only does the mind influence the body; the body also influences the mind. A range of fascinating experiments have shown that cognition is not merely abstract and removed from the real world. It is actually heavily influenced by things like our surroundings, sensations and even body posture.

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One of the most famous of these experiments involved changing participants’ mood by surreptitiously getting them to smile! Participants were asked to hold a pencil in their teeth, which causes activation of smiling muscles, or lips which doesn’t cause smiling. You can try this out for yourself. Participants then rated several cartoons for funniness. Those who were (unknowingly) “smiling” rated the cartoons as funnier than people who were not smiling. It is theorized that using muscles for smiling, even if you are not conscious of it, give positive feedback to the brain to indicate that you are experiencing a high mood. This is known as the “facial feedback hypothesis.”

Further support for this theory comes from studying people who receive botulinum toxin (botox) injections. Botox diminishes muscle feedback, therefore if the injection is administered to the face this can mean reduced sensitivity in muscles involved in expressing emotions. Hemmenholter et al (2008) asked participants to imitate facial expressions, and used fMRI to study the brain activity of people during this task, before and after a botox injection. When the participants were asked to imitate a frowning face, the authors found reduced activation in areas involved in emotional processing after the botox injection compared to before. This finding suggests that reducing the feedback of facial muscles changes the way in which the brain processes emotional content.

Together, these studies show us that reasoning is not merely abstract and without constraint, instead it is structured by our bodies and environments. We create representations through experience. If we had evolved in a very different environment, with different physiology, our cognition would also be altered. This new way of looking at cognition has huge implications from philosophy to creating artificial intelligence and to the design of everyday objects.

Really great TED talk which gives more information about this: Ron Gutman: The hidden power of smiling

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