Re­ceiv­ing an im­age of a smil­ing face through­out the day could boost mood, re­searchers be­lieve

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SCIENCE - By SARAH KNAPTON

It is said that when you smile, the world smiles with you and now neu­ro­sci­en­tists are putting the time-worn adage to the test. A new project by Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don is aim­ing to find out if sim­ply look­ing at a smil­ing face could help ease de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety.

Javier Elkin and Dr Parashkev Nachev have de­vel­oped a new app called Pock­etSmile which sends a grin­ning im­age to smart­phones through­out the day in the hope it could ac­tu­ally cheer peo­ple up.

It fol­lows re­cent re­search which sug­gests that when peo­ple see some­one smil­ing, their own smile mus­cles can­not help but also switch on. The emo­tion ap­pears to be con­ta­gious and it is vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to avoid mim­ick­ing the ex­pres­sion.

Sci­en­tists now be­lieve that emo­tions and ex­pres­sions hap­pen at ex­actly the same time, so trig­ger­ing one au­to­mat­i­cally ac­ti­vates the other. It there­fore fol­lows, that smil­ing, or see­ing a smile, even when you don’t feel happy could stim­u­late happy thoughts, or vice versa.

Mr Elkin said: “We know that smil­ing is con­ta­gious. But is the emo­tion also con­ta­gious? Is hap­pi­ness con­ta­gious as well? That’s what we want to find out.

“If you see some­one smil­ing and you con­sciously try not to smile back at all, and keep a very neu­tral face, it quickly be­comes awk­ward. Mimicry is in­built within is.”

The sci­en­tists are hop­ing that thou­sands of peo­ple will sign up to the Pock­etSmile which takes 20 days. Par­tic­i­pants are ini­tially asked about their lev­els of hap­pi­ness and de­pres­sion be­fore be­ing sent images of smil­ing faces for 10 days and then land­scapes for 10 days as a con­trol.

If the app is found to have a ben­e­fi­cial ef­fect on mood it could be used as a stop-gap for de­pressed peo­ple while they wait to be re­ferred for ther­apy, fol­low­ing an ini­tial di­ag­no­sis of anx­i­ety of de­pres­sion.

“It is a nudge in­ter­ven­tion,” added Mr Elkin. “Ob­vi­ously it’s not for peo­ple who are se­verely in need, it’s not sup­posed to tackle ma­jor de­pres­sion. But if it works the long term goal will be to give peo­ple the app while they are wait­ing for their re­fer­ral to a pro­fes­sional, be­cause it may take up to two months be­fore they see some­one.

“This might be able to help them sus­tain them­selves un­til they can get a re­fer­ral.”

Sci­en­tists say emo­tions and fa­cial ex­pres­sions act like a ‘push-pull’ ef­fect. If you block a neg­a­tive emo- tion, a pos­i­tive ef­fect comes out.

How­ever block­ing pos­i­tive emo­tions can have the re­verse ac­tion. Prof Nachev has worked with pa­tients who have com­plete fa­cial paralysis and it paral­y­ses their emo­tions.

Dr Nachev said: “The re­al­ity is an emo­tion and its ex­pres­sion go hand in hand. So if you al­ter the ex­pres­sion you may well al­ter the emo­tions. The cru­cial point is that the ex­pres­sion might have an ef­fect on the mood be­cause it runs in par­al­lel, it’s not sec­ondary. The two are tied to­gether.

“Not only is hav­ing, or in­duc­ing a fa­cial ex­pres­sion one­self po­ten­tially help­ful at chang­ing mood, it’s also the case that you can in­duce it sim­ply by view­ing an­other face.”

It is thought that hu­mans mimic each other to help bond­ing and also to stay alive. Canned laugh­ter is used in come­dies to in­duce the same re­sponse and make jokes sound fun­nier. In con­trast, if you see fear in some­one’s face it makes sense to be fright­ened be­cause what­ever is en­dan­ger­ing them, could also en­dan­ger you.

“The con­ta­gion of emo­tional states is a fun­da­men­tal fea­ture of hu­man be­ings, added Dr Nachev.

“The brain is con­stantly try­ing to pre­dict what is go­ing to hap­pen next.”

In the fu­ture the team hope to work on projects which could al­ter the sound of the voice to make is sound less anx­ious, or cre­ate an avatar of a per­son in which they look calmer.

“The ob­vi­ous ap­pli­ca­tion for this is call-cen­tre where you can make voices sooth­ing both for your­self and for the other lis­ten­ers, so even though the call-cen­tre worker is re­ally an­noyed or an­gry he founds per­fectly sooth­ing,” added Pro Nachev.

“Then we move to the realm of avatars and the idea is we form some kind of rea­son­ably com­pelling dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of your­self which be­comes a dis­torted dig­i­tal mir­ror in a way that is ben­e­fi­cial to you.

“This isn’t about mis­rep­re­sent­ing you to the out­side world but it’s about re­cal­i­brat­ing the way you think about your­self so as to im­prove the way we can re­late to our­selves.”

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Re­ceiv­ing an im­age of a smil­ing face through­out the day could help boost mood, re­searchers be­lieve.

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