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Neurobites: A Smile

🕑 3 minutes read
Posted March 30, 2017


  • Has a positive effect on happiness and physical health?
  • Releases dopamine and serotonin and reduces cortisol?
  • Is a nonverbal form of expression?


A Smile.

A smile costs nothing and gives much.” – Anonymous



Here are two free tips that will hopefully brighten your day.

Tip #1: How to take a great picture every time

You’re about to have your picture taken. The photographer says, “Now, smile.” You try to put on a happy natural smile and then hold it until she snaps your photo. You feel awkward and your smile feels tight and forced. When you look at the results, you are stunned at how unnatural your smile looks. It doesn’t appear genuine at all; in fact it looks fake and forced. You say, “That doesn’t look like me at all; that’s a terrible picture!”

What went wrong?

To take a great picture, let’s look at the motor pathways for smiling. There are actually two pathways for smiling; one is voluntary or forced, the other is spontaneous and genuine. This realization came from the study of stroke patients and those who suffered an injury to the motor area of one hemisphere; one side of their body and face are paralyzed.

Assuming the stroke is in the right hemisphere, trying to smile or to show their teeth results a lopsided, somewhat unpleasant grimace; the left side of the mouth is immobile and flaccid while the muscles on the right side move up and out voluntarily to form an awkward half smile. Yet when someone tells the same patient a funny story or a happy smiling grandchild comes in, her face lights up with a huge smile. The muscles on both sides of her face respond to produce a big smile.

But, wasn’t one side of the face supposed to be paralyzed? Yes, it is and any attempt to produce a voluntary smile will still result in the same lopsided grimace. The right frontal lobe damage has deactivated the neurons and motor pathways leading to the muscles on the left side of the face. No voluntary effort will make them move.

However, a spontaneous, natural smile in response to hearing a joke or by the joy in seeing her grandchild is produced by activation of the emotional center. It has its own separate motor pathway to the facial muscles for smiling. The limbic system, once activated, relays this information to the basal ganglia that activate the muscles to produce a big smile. The conscious deliberate smile produced on command appears forced, which it is. But the spontaneous “limbic smile” looks genuine, happy and authentic. It is a full smile.

The next time the photographer says, “Smile,” think of a funny event in your life or bring to mind a dear loved one who always makes you smile. Engage your emotional center and basal ganglia with humor and love. You will be rewarded with a “real” smile that looks like you and that reflects the genuine joy and warmth you truly feel.

Tip #2:  The 10-Smiles Trick

While an authentic smile makes for a better picture, even a forced smile can have positive effects on your mood and your health.  The brain is constantly monitoring what’s happening in your body by analyzing all sorts of inputs like heart rate variability, muscle tension, posture, and yes, facial expressions to judge how you are feeling.  When you smile, even a forced smile, the muscles of your face trigger the release of endorphins and can help lower your heart rate.

This reaction informs the 10-Smiles Trick.  It’s as simple as its name implies and is a terrific way to cheer yourself up or someone else.  Like a coach might demand pushups or laps, urge someone in a bad mood to give you ten smiles.  Count them out.  At first they will be forced; by the fifth or sixth smile, the smiling will start to be silly or funny and the remaining smiles will be limbic smiles, authentic ones.  And smiles are contagious; when someone is smiling at you, it’s hard not to smile back.  That’s because mirror neurons kick in when watching another’s action. When you see someone else smile you involuntarily start smiling yourself.


We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.” – Mother Teresa

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