The Science Behind a True Smile

imagesMany may think that a smile is merely a fleeting facial expression that comes without leaving any real consequence. However, a smile shouldn’t be taken for granted. In fact, the science behind a smile has been explored in various classes across the country. The Harvard Medical School offers a course that takes an interdisciplinary approach when digging into psychiatry, behavioral genetics and behavior economics. Cognitive researcher Nancy Lee Etcoff, the instructor of this course, notes that brain’s pleasure circuit is often triggered by a smile.

A smile activates the release of neuropeptides that work to reduce stress. Neuropeptides are small molecules that allow neurons to communicate, passing a messages to the whole body when we are happy, sad, angry, excited. Neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are released when a smile crosses the face. Endorphins are known to act as a natural pain reliever and serotonin acts as an anti-depressant/mood lifter as well. Many pharmaceuticals have done extensive research on synthesizing a drug that will influence levels of serotonin, but a smile is the natural way to go, without the negative side effects and the necessary prescription from the doctor. Researchers at the University of Kansas have demonstrated that smiling during brief periods of stress has the potential to reduce the body’s stress response, regardless of whether the person actually feels happy or not.

But don’t think you can trick the brain into thinking that a less than genuine smile is for real. Researches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed analyzing measures that can detect the subtle differences between a smile generated b frustration and one originating from true happiness. The MIT Media Lab have discovered that the anatomy of smile differs between a forced smile and a genuine smile. Ehsan Hoque, a member of the MIT Media Lab, gives an analogy, stating that “just because a customer is smiling, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re satisfied,” he says.  He reminds us that “the underlying meaning behind the smile is crucial.” Further studies done has connected this information to the neurotransmitters released in the brain, they have also found that genuine smiles originating from a positive event, where your eyes and mouth muscles are engaged, are more effective at lowering heart rate and reducing stress.

But can you also benefit from smiles around you? Researchers at Harvard University and the University of California, San Diego found that happiness smiles can be spread through social networks. “Everyday interactions we have with other people are definitely contagious, in terms of happiness,” says Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study. Another study published in the journal Neuropsychologica demonstrated that when you see an attractive smiling face, this activates the orbitofrontal cortex, which is the portion of the brain that process sensory rewards. This indicates that when you catch someone giving you a smile, you feel like you are rewarded. According to Marianne LaFrance, a psychology professor at Yale, if we see a happy face for just 4 milliseconds,  that’s long enough to bring out a mini emotional high. In a study where participants were flashed a smile, even though it was shown too quickly for them to even realize they had come across it, they started to perceive things around them more positively.

As Mother Teresa eloquently puts it, “every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” Let’s continue to put on genuine smiles and before you know it, you’ll find yourself feeling brighter and happier!

If you have any more questions, feel free to contact Drs. Ali & Ali and the caring team at Wellesley Dental Group if you have any thoughts or concerns; they will be happy to answer your questionsContact us today at 781-237-9071 or to set up an appointment and consultation.


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