A smile on a person’s face may in fact trigger a smile on another person’s face as well, a new study suggests.
Researchers say that if someone smiles, you might smile back because your brain sends signals to your face muscles to mimic the expressions of the other person. That helps people understand how the other person is feeling.
The feeling of smiling reminds people of past experiences in which they made the same facial expression. Mimicking someone else’s smile might remind the perceiver of a happy feeling.
Dr. Adrienne Wood, lead author of the study and a Naturopathic Doctor in Windsor, Nova Scotia, said that mimicking some else’s facial expressions happens within a few hundred milliseconds, and it is below one’s awareness.
According to Dr. Wood, facial expressions use forty-two different muscles and they can generate hundreds of combinations. Most of people’s expressions in everyday life are actually quite subtle.
Ursula Hess, a psychologist at Humboldt University in Berlin, said that there might not always be a connection between understanding someone else’s emotions and facial mimicry.
Facial expressions may sometimes not give clear clues, Kevin Ochsner, director of the social cognitive neuroscience laboratory at Columbia University, states. Depending on the context, people show their emotions differently.
Even though mimicry plays an important role in understanding other people’s emotions, sometimes it may not be enough to fully understand the emotional state of a person in every context, Dr. Ochsner explained.
Dr. Hess said that people may feel more understood if the other person mimics heir facial expressions, which could help interactions between people go more smoothly. The research of Dr. Hess focuses on the person who initially makes the facial expression, and not so much on the perceiver.
Due to emotion contagion – the tendency for two individuals to emotionally converge, which can be can be done through mimicry of one’s expressions with those of another person – smiling can change other people’s emotional states, Wood said.
However, not all contexts are appropriate for smiles, according to Hess. If someone makes an inappropriate joke, that you can definitely look displeased, she added.
If you want to get people to feel a certain way, making a certain facial expression yourself could also influence them, Wood said.
The findings were published Thursday (Feb. 11) in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.