By Peter M. Vishton, PhD, William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Did you wake up in a bad mood? Don’t despair—turning things around may be easier than you think! Professor Vishton explains.
Does the Brain Control the Body?
Most people think that the brain controls the body. That’s true to a great extent. If you wave your right arm around, it’s because of a particular pattern of neural activity in a particular place in your brain—specifically the motor cortex in your left frontal lobe.
If you twitch your right hand, it’s because of a specific set of neurons located there. If you were to insert an electrical stimulator into that motor cortex in just the right spot and give it a jolt, you could make that same twitch happen.
“I want to challenge this assumption that the brain fully controls the body,” Professor Vishton said.
A lot of work now suggests that our thought processes don’t stop when they leave the confines of the skull. Your brain controls the rest of your body; no one can really dispute that. However, your body influences, and even controls, the state of your brain as well.
The Power of a Smile
“This leads me to my first tip … to feel more happy, smile,” Professor Vishton said. “This can feel strange the first few times that you do it. The situation I’m imagining here is that you specifically do not feel like smiling. You would employ this tip specifically when you are feeling unhappy. And when we are unhappy, it’s rare for us to smile.”
Professor Vishton recommends that when you are in that situation, choose to smile anyway. Force your face into a smile posture. Evidence suggests that doing this will cause you to feel more happy, for your brain to be transformed into a more happy state of activity by that smile posture.
In the 1970s, James Laird conducted some studies in which he asked participants to contract certain muscles on their faces while they watched cartoon movies. He found that if they were making exaggerated smile expressions, then they would report that the movies were more humorous as compared with people who did not make those expressions.
Smile Study Revisited
“My favorite study on this phenomenon was conducted by a researcher named Fritz Strack,” Professor Vishton said. “He was a bit skeptical of this earlier Laird study because perhaps the participants were able to recognize the facial expressions that they were making.”
Perhaps the participants realized they were doing something related to happiness, and thus were primed to think happy thoughts. Strack came up with a way to get around this. He asked participants to hold a pencil in their mouths while looking at amusing cartoons.
This will be a lot clearer if you try this right now. Get a pencil or pen. Ideally, it should be a clean pencil or pen, because you will be putting it in your mouth.
Hold the pencil between your teeth. It’s important while you do so that the pencil not touch your lips. It should just be touching your teeth. Hold it there for a few seconds.
If there is a mirror nearby, take a look at yourself. You are smiling. Well, you aren’t quite smiling, but you put your face into a posture that’s similar to the one you use when you do smile.
Relax for a few seconds now. This time, hold the pencil between your lips. It’s critical that the pencil only touches your lips. It can’t touch your teeth at all. When you have it, take a look in the mirror. You are frowning.
In the experiments that Strack and his colleagues ran, participants were randomly assigned to the teeth-only or lips-only condition. The experimenters had a cover story for why they asked the participants to do this strange task.
They said they were interested in how different types of controllers that might be used by people who lost the use of their hands might affect their mental processing. Various controllers, they said, would engage the mouths in different ways.
Results of Pencil Experiment
At the end of the procedure, Strack and his colleagues asked people what they thought of the experiments. When people were specifically asked if they thought that the pencil might have changed their overall mood, essentially everyone said no.
Participants who made the smile posture reported feeling more positive than the participants who adopted that frown posture. Additionally, a control group of participants didn’t hold a pencil in their mouths at all. They fell in the middle of these two groups.
This control group is an important part of the experimental design. Maybe holding a pencil in your teeth is unpleasant and holding it between your lips is unpleasant.
That would produce the differences between those groups without actually making anyone feel happy. However, with the control group, we can rule that out.
This basic effect has been replicated more than a dozen times. If you smile for a few minutes, you will generally report feeling more positive. If you make a frown, then in short order, you will begin feeling more negative.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.