In one of the more interesting experiments that have been conducted, Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wanted to find out whether facial expressions can affect emotions. For a long time it has been known that our inner life is expressed outwardly: the stench of spoiled food turns our noses up; the gaze of a lover produces a smile; the snarling of an angry dog widens our eyes in preparation for flight.
Davidson was working under an assumption dating back to Charles Darwin: changing your facial expression can shift your emotions. While this hypothesis was only backed anecdotally, he realized an opportunity to test this idea awaited him inside of Madison cosmetic surgery clinics.
Botulinum toxin was discovered for its role as being a toxic agent in improperly handled meat products in the late nineteenth century—it was initially dubbed ‘sausage poison.’ German medical writer and physician Justinus Kerner was the first to dream up a therapeutic application for it, naming it botulism, from the Latin botulus, meaning ‘sausage.’
It was not until 1949, however, that Arnold Burgen’s group discovered that the toxin blocks neuromuscular transmission; hence, the freezing of frown lines. Forty years more were required for Botox to go from a medical tool for helping crossed eyes and uncontrollable blinking, as well as slowing the spasms of our lower esophageal sphincter, to the projected $4.7 billion global industry by 2018.
Today it’s the rare mainstream newscaster who doesn’t get a ‘little help’ with those glabellar lines, which is actually the result of a temporary paralysis of the corrugator muscle. Davidson and his colleague, Arthur Glenberg, brought in a number of women from local clinics to monitor their reactions, both before and after an injection of Botox, to three different sentences: one to induce anger, another sadness, the third happiness.
Interestingly, the corrugator muscle plays a role in expressing anger and sadness, though has nothing to do with smiling. As predicted, the women’s reaction times to the happiness-incuding phrase did not slow their response. The other two were affected by an average of a quarter-second. This might not seem an eternity, but in neuroscience research, it is.
As Davidson writes,
What we suspect happened is that when the women could not frown or make a sad expression, their brain was deprived of signals that normally reach the insula and somatosensory cortex and from there travel to language areas in the left hemisphere where meaning is decoded.
Davidson’s work has helped overturn the longstanding notion that emotions play no role in our logic and reasoning processes (it does), as well as this research, which shows that how we carry ourselves physically is on a feedback loop with what we feel inside. By changing how we express ourselves, we change our inner world as well.
If our concern is too heavily weighted towards external appearance, however, we potentially damage our relationship with our emotional wellbeing. Early Christian ethics writers inherently knew that pride and envy ravage bitter wars upon the societies of humankind. Turns out they were right.