Mirror neurons and smiles
When you see someone experiencing something painful, do you flinch a bit without thinking? Or when you see someone make a horrible face at the thought of eating what appears to be a really “yucky,” dish, do you start to feel a little queasy, too? What you’re experiencing has baffled neuroscientists for quite some time. It’s the ability to seemingly understand what other people are experiencing without even thinking about it. Recent research suggests an exciting new explanation: brain cells called mirror neurons. How many of you have heard of mirror neurons? And if you have, how many know what they do? Read on to find out.
“A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.” In other words, mirror neurons are a group of neurons that activate when we perform an action or when we see an action being performed. So, how does this relate to smiles? Well, for one thing, it allows us to send our “good vibes” to other people and get some in return.
We use our mirror neurons to bounce smiles to other people. And studies have shown that smiling and the good feelings that go along with it are neurologically contagious. Have you heard the old expression “smile and the world smiles with you?” Empathy – being able to understand and feel what another person is experiencing – is one of the most important emotions to have in interpersonal relationships. Initially discovered in the 1980s when experimenting with monkeys, researchers observed that a primate’s neurons fired simply by watching another monkey do something, which might explain another old expression “monkey see, monkey do.”
More research needed
Mirror neuron research is providing greater insight into empathy as well as such brain disorders as autism and schizophrenia. It’s also leading to new theories about how language evolves and new therapies for victims of strokes. Most of the research going on involves monkeys, but scientists believe these findings are relevant for humans, too. Among the recent findings are brain imaging studies showing that mirror neurons seem to allow us to determine both the intentions and actions of other people and receive and interpret facial expressions. For example, when we observe someone pick up a cup to drink, part of our mirror neuron system is more active than when we see the same person merely removing a cup from a table. And when it comes to facial expressions, we activate the same area of our brain, we are making the expression ourselves or observing some else make it.
The power of a smile
Researchers have examined areas of the brain that become active when someone smiles at us. Not only did the normal areas of visual perception light up, but other areas lit up, too. “The results show that perceiving and expressing pleasant facial affect share a common neural basis in areas concerned with motor as well as somato- and limbic-sensory processing,” according to the researchers. What that means in everyday language is that our smiling muscles were activated and that our brains became active in the emotional and physical smiling state. And this allows us to simulate. So, when we see another person smile, we mimic the action and become happier.
Positive neurological activity
Not only does smiling unleash a surge of positive neurological activity, it can increase the level of neurochemicals. “Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness. Serotonin release is associated with reduced stress. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depression and aggression,” according to Dr. Isha Gupta. Our mirror neurons are the only types of brain cells that can “code the actions of others in tandem with activating our own,” which is why they are crucial in social interactions.
We now know that depression weakens our immune systems, but can smiling do the opposite? Researchers believe it can. Dr. Murray Grossan, an ENT-otolaryngologist, says happiness can boost our body’s resistance. “What’s crazy is that just the physical act of smiling can make a difference in building your immunity,” says Dr. Grossan. “When you smile, the brain sees the muscle [activity] and assumes that humor is happening.” Moreover, scientists at the University of Cardiff in Wales discovered that people who received Botox injections and were unable to frown because of that were “happier on average than those who could frown.”
If you’re interested in this fascinating subject, there are numerous studies around. Some of them might even make you smile. For example, researchers at the University of Kansas have found that smiling “helps reduce the body’s response to stress and lower heart rate in tense situations.” And another study said smiling lowers blood pressure, while yet another suggests that smiling may make you live longer. So, maybe the old saying is true; a smile goes a long way!