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Botox: frozen face = chilled emotional response?

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"Smile though your heart is breaking," sang the Little Tramp Charlie Chaplin, and the whole world will light up. "Put on a happy face," advised Albert Peterson (played by Jason Alexander in this clip) in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. It's received wisdom that smiling makes you happy as much being happy makes you smile.

But what if you can't smile because, for example, your face is paralyzed by Botox?

According to this report yesterday, Barnard researchers have concluded that Botox paralyzes not only your face but your emotions. The scientists played emotion-charged video clips for people who had been given either Botox injections or a filler material that didn't freeze their faces. The second group responded more powerfully to the clips than the first group did.

Apparently, that feedback from facial muscles to the brain is an important part of our emotional circuitry.

If this finding holds up, it would support a hypothesis advanced by, among others, Paul Ekman, PhD, the emeritus University of California-San Francisco psychologist who first proved that important emotion-flagging facial expressions are not only invariant across cultures, but more or less involuntary even though we're constantly masking them. (I've described this work and some of its implications, such as techniques for determining whether someone is telling the truth, here.)

The hypothesis in question holds that humans are universally hardwired to constrict or relax particular sets of facial muscles corresponding to specific emotional states, and that babies - instinctively mirroring the various patterns of holes and balls and circles and lines (we grown-ups call them "faces") hovering over their cribs - directly experience the emotions they're mimicking and, thus, quickly grasp what those configurations of lines and circles and balls and holes ("expressions") mean.

There are also some obvious practical implications. The key take-home lesson here, for me, is that I'd better lighten up on my scowling and snarling when I'm driving through traffic, even all alone, lest I reprogram myself into the human analog of an iguana. (My wife says my epitaph will read: "Must . . Win . . . Imaginary . . . Race!!")

Previously: Compassion, Darwin, facial expressions, the Dalai Lama - and counterterrorism?
Photo by net_efekt

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