Here's something to smile about.
With masks disappearing more and more from daily life, I have been thinking about what was behind them for all those months: our faces, our mouths—our smiles.
And just as there are two sides to every coin, so there are two smiles for every face.
The voluntary smile is a product of conscious effort. We use this smile when we’re introduced to someone new, are asking for a favor, or want to conceal a negative feeling or thought.
The emotional smile is involuntary—a spontaneous grin that happens when we recognize a friend, see something beautiful, or are right about to laugh.
The same facial muscles in the lower face work to make both kinds of smiles, but the emotional smile activates the muscles around the eyes as well.
Did you know that smiling is the second developmental milestone in a human’s life, after being able to hold a gaze?
Generally a baby can reliably return a smile at four to eight weeks of age, although the fleeting mouth movements before then may well be smiles that he or she just can’t hold. “It's just gas,” said the old wives, although if the baby looks comfortable otherwise and is still moving his mouth, how could it be gas?
Does the baby not know how to smile, or are the adults just unable to recognize the smile?
We can learn more about smiling from those whose ability to smile is impaired.
People who have had a territorial stroke can't make a symmetric voluntary smile, but their emotional smile can be relatively balanced.
Conversely, people with Parkinson’s can make a voluntary smile, but when they hear something funny or feel happy, their facial muscles don’t move. (This can exacerbate their social isolation, as other people misinterpret the blank expression.)
People with myotonic dystrophy and other neuromuscular disorders may have weak facial muscles, which can cause them to look unhappy or displeased even though they aren’t.
Does smiling have any bearing on our fitness or ability to move?
Dr. Noel Brick, of Ulster University, conducted a fascinating study on the effects of facial expression on physical exertion. He looked at runners who smiled versus runners who frowned during exercise and concluded that the smilers expended less energy and reported feeling less tired as well.
If you have impaired mobility, you may think this research doesn’t apply to you. But you can reap the benefits at any level of physical activity.
And with our masks (mostly) gone, we already have something to smile about—so perhaps our next steps will be a little lighter.
Yours in health,
Dr. Patricia Kavanagh