Neuroscientists study many things. One of those, for instance, is what happens in the brain when we observe expressions on other people's faces. Smiles are one of the most impactful expressions we exude, and we are very efficient at recognizing the subtle differences between a genuine smile, and one that is not. And, we can distinguish between them in a split second, even without being aware of the differences.
So, What is the Difference?
Zygomatic major muscle: This muscle resides around the cheeks and turns the corners of the lips up.
Orbicularis oculi muscle: This muscle contracts around the eyes resulting in the distinctive wrinkles often referred to as "crow's feet." It is also responsible for closing the eyelids.
A genuine smile is produced by the joint action of two facial muscles. It raises both corners of the mouth (the ‘cheek raiser’ or zygomatic major muscle, which makes the mouth corners go upwards), and engages the muscles around the eyes (the orbicularis oculi, or orbicularis oculi pars lateralis, in Latin), which also raises the cheeks. A Duchenne smile is the one that reaches your eyes, making the corners wrinkle up with crow’s feet. It’s the smile most of us recognize as the most authentic expression of happiness. These smiles give the impression that someone is sincere and trustworthy (and generous, interestingly.) These smiles forge genuine connections and further relationships.
(It is known as a 'Duchenne smile', named after the 19th C French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne, who studied the stimulated movement of muscles and mapped the muscles of the human body, including the muscles that control facial expression.) It was later confirmed by Charles Darwin.
A fabricated, non-Duchenne, smile (aka 'fake smile' or 'polite smile'), uses different muscles and doesn't have this interplay between the facial muscle groups. A genuine smile requires both these muscles to work together, while a non-genuine uses only the zygomatic major muscle. The absence of movement in the outer part of the muscle that orbits the eye distinguishes a fabricated smile from the genuine. There are no crow’s feet present and the cheeks are not raised by the muscle’s action, which narrows the eye aperture.
Now before you get too ruffled up at the idea of someone faking a reaction, it could be said that while their smile may not reflect genuine and unguarded warmth, or empathy, or concern for you, it is known as 'a polite smile' because behind it is at least some attempt at social cohesion and effort towards you. They are not fully onboard, invested in what you are saying, but they are also not as cold as ice, expressionless, disengaged and completely detached. It could be used when nervous, reserved, or uncertain. It is common when meeting someone new or communicating with someone you don't particularly like or are unsure about. It is often part of an unwritten social contract of polite pleasantries, and can also rightly communicate to someone to keep their distance, which is often appropriate in an ever-growing population-dense world where personal space is at a premium and becomes more and more valuable.
But You Can Fake it, Right?
Well, no (mostly), though yes for a few, and there's a but...
Generally speaking, the answer is no, we cannot control it. It's automatic, involuntary, and genuine.
However, scientists used to believe it was impossible to fake a Duchenne smile, but we now know there are some who can produce a Duchenne smile intentionally, not just organically. Call these people master communicators, or master manipulators, but the fact is, you might come across them once in a while, and as they can be quite persuasive, you might want to keep your wallet in your pocket, just in case. Salespeople and restaurant servers seem to dabble in both worlds.
As Zen Master global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, revered for his pioneering teachings on mindfulness, global ethics and peace once observed, “Your joy can be the source of your smile, but sometimes, your smile can be the source of your joy.” But this is more than just spiritual hopefulness. My psychology teacher in college did her thesis on the concept that you can alter (i.e. regulate) the way you feel (even slowing your heart rate), and possibly elevate your mood, by deliberately creating/mimicking certain expressions. Known as 'facial feedback', there is some credibility to the idea that we can change our moods, our emotional state and feelings about something, with this simple and deliberate action. Studies of MRI scans showed that engaging the muscles one uses to smile stimulates parts of the brain that control emotional responses. Many studies have concluded there are both physiological and psychological benefits from maintaining positive facial expressions during stress.
I tried it, myself, and it felt very inauthentic so I didn't continue with it, but to be fair, it's an easy thing to do, it costs nothing, and since it is possible that by changing an outlook, we change an outcome, I'd recommend experimenting with it a bit yourself. Plus, smiles, like yawns, are contagious.
The Hidden Side-Effect of Botox: She Can't Read Your Face Either
People who have their face injected with Botox do so to try and roll back time, to go back to a more youthful, younger version of themselves. But freezing (aka paralyzing) the face with botulism has an unintended side-effect, in addition to the wrinkles disappearing and facial expressions being muted. Interestingly, the process also functions the other way around: in paralyzing the orbicularis oculi (muscles around the eyes), they not only lose the ability to smile genuinely, they also lose the ability to properly register others' smiles; as well as a variety of many other facial expressions.
In 2011, psychologists David Neal and Tanya Chartrand, from the University of Southern California and Duke University respectively, compared a group of women who’d had a Botox injection with a group who hadn’t. They asked both groups to look at photographs of different people, and to rate how strongly these were expressing their feelings. Result: The Botox group didn’t feel others’ emotions as strongly. Several studies since have confirmed and extended these same findings.
In order to recognize how other people are feeling, we use various sources of information, and one of those is facial feedback signals, which are generated when we automatically mimic expressions on others' faces. When muscles contract, they are met with resistance, and this resistance sends biofeedback signals to the brain, which help us to correctly interpret what we have seen.
The takeaway: People without a functioning orbicularis oculi, and other facial muscles, experience a flattening of their emotional life. Not only do they not project what appear to be genuine emotions and emotional reactions to people and experiences, they also do not correctly and fully register others' emotions. In an increasingly digitized world, we should do everything we can to maximize our ever more rare person-to-person interactions and communications... shouldn't we?
Botox Study Reference: