Every so often, in midst of a posture, as my wobbly elbows strain to press upward and beads of sweat roll down my face, my instructor will chime, “Now relax your face and smile!”. Huh? Did she say, “smile”? WTF? Do I really have to add a smile to my to-do list while struggling through these poses? Besides, guys don’t smile while working out.
Well, on the other hand, it IS yoga class we’re talking about – not Gold’s Gym. Its not supposed to be a biceps and triceps workout, but rather a WHOLE BODY-MIND workout. Technically, the face IS part of the body, so I guess while I’m straining every other muscle in my body, I’m obliged to include the face. OK fine, I’ll relax my face – but no way am I going to smile.
Am I missing something here? What’s the point of smiling anyway? I’m not exactly happy. Isn’t it the case that you feel happy and THEN you smile. Its not the other way around – smile and THEN you feel happy. Or is it?
According to a recent research article, How does facial feedback modulate emotional experience? by Joshua Davis, Ann Senghas and Kevin Ochsner from Columbia University – the intentional act of relaxing the face and/or smiling can indeed mildly influence a person’s mood. Apparently there are neural pathway(s) that allow the muscles in the face to send signals back to the brain and modulate one’s emotional experience – described in the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. From their experiment where they asked 142 participants to watch positive and negative video clips while either inhibiting their facial expressions or not, the authors note:
This study sought to examine whether inhibiting facial expression influences emotional experience, particularly when participants are unaware that their facial expressions are being manipulated. Moreover, we sought to examine this relationship while controlling for the potential role of distraction due to a cognitively demanding secondary task. Overall, we found that no movement instructions, to inhibit facial expression, led participants to both show less emotion on their faces and to experience weaker emotions, whereas distraction instructions did not. This pattern held more clearly for our negative and neutral video clips, but was less clear for our positive video clip.
Their data provide support for the Facial Feedback Hypothesis – namely that contracting muscles involved in facial expressions (e.g. smiling or frowning) can make emotions more intense.
In a follow-up study, the investigators queried the effects of blocking these facial feedback pathways – via BOTOX injections. Might the BOTOX (which paralyzes muscles in the face) prevent the facial feedback from modulating one’s emotional experiences?
In their article, “The Effects of BOTOX Injections on Emotional Experience“, the research team compared the impact on self-reported emotional experience of BOTOX injections and a control Restylane injection (a cosmetic filler that does not affect facial muscles). They report:
When examined alone, BOTOX participants showed no pre- to posttreatment changes in emotional responses to our most positive and negative video clips. Between-groups comparisons, however, showed that relative to controls, BOTOX participants exhibited an overall significant decrease in the strength of emotional experience. This result was attributable to (a) a pre- versus postdecrease in responses to mildly positive clips in the BOTOX group and (b) an unexpected increase in responses to negative clips in the Restylane control group.
So it seems that the facial feedback hypothesis has some merit. Did the old-time yogis work out this connection between body-to-mind intuitively? I’ll bet they did!
Relax the face & smile. Sage advice!
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