Can You Catch a Smile?

I recently told a few friends about the exciting new scientific research that shows just how contagious smiling can be. They decided to test it out by just randomly smiling at people.

One of my friends told me about her shopping trip to ASDA and how, after a few curious looks, some people smiled back. It even led to a conversation with an elderly gentlemen and also a pleasant exchange at the till point.

Another of my friends gave up after about half an hour because he hadn’t been able to raise a smile from a single person. People either just looked straight through him or looked at him funnily.

It might have been the area that he lived in. Maybe people aren’t too happy there. But I assured him that, even though people might not have visibly smiled back, their faces will have done it really fast without them even knowing.

This kind of thing was shown in some research where people were shown a neutral face on a computer screen. Only that’s what they thought, because a happy face was flashed on the screen for about 25 thousandths of a second before the neutral face appeared. It was so fast that the person wasn’t consciously aware of it. But here’s the thing – their brain saw it, and it reacted to it by pulling their smile muscles (the zygomaticus major muscles) into a smile and relaxing them again.

The researchers measured this by fitting tiny electrodes to the facial muscles. The technique is called ‘Facial EMG’ and it can measure tiny movements of the muscles.

In another experiment, people were even shown happy faces and were instructed to frown as soon as they saw the faces. As expected, each person scowled when they saw the happy faces, but not before Facial EMG measured a superfast smile, again within a few thousandths of a second.

So I reassured my friend that everyone he smiled at really did smile back. They just didn’t know that they smiled back. And he smiled when I suggested that even if they don’t visibly smile back at him, at least they’ll be wondering what he’s been up to.