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Articles    H3'ed 9/27/09

Smile Anatomy: Emotional Self Regulation and Facial Expression Muscle Measurement and Training

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Emotion researcher Sylvan Tomkins suggests that most people rarely express pure, uninhibited emotions. They transform, inhibit and modify feelings based on their acculturation. The feelings end up being blocked and are never really felt. Tomkins suggests that breathing and vocalization are the most strongly blocked. The facial muscles are used to prevent the feelings from being expressed. Instead of jumping and shouting joyously, we smile with drawn cheeks and pursed lips. We need to be able to control our emotional displays in some situations. The problem is, some people don't learn how to modulate the release of uninhibited emotional expression. They are either totally inhibiting or totally emoting. Raw emotional expression can be frightening, like an "alien force within" if it is only released on rare occasions-- during intoxication or under extreme circumstances. For feelings to be tamed, one must be capable of varying mixtures of voluntary and uninhibited control. One has to be able to modulate emotional letting go-- ten percent sometimes, ninety five percent other times. Practice can help.

If a positive experience opportunity presents itself, one must be able to quickly make the most of it by connecting with it as completely as possible yet appropriate, emotionally, mentally and physically. It takes training and practice to learn how to comfortably express and experience deep feelings.

I often ask seminar participants to smile at the very beginning of my presentation. A few don't smile at all. Some scowl. Some barely smile, and some let loose with strong smiles at the least excuse. I only allow about three seconds and then I say, "Stop. If you didn't smile yet, you lost your chance." A quick, strong positive experience reflex is necessary to get the most out of each minute.

We are conditioned to experience good feelings in response to the smile and warm, happy sounds, since most of the time, smiles and happy or pleasure sounds and actions are genuine parts of positive experiences which produce good feelings.

Paul Ekman told professional actors and actresses to make emotional faces, one muscle group at a time. This way, the instructions didn't cue the actors to the kind of face formed. They weren't told to make a happy or frightened face, but rather, to move their facial muscles in specified patterns, ie.; pull the brows together, pull the mouth back horizontally, raise the upper eyelids, etcetera. Ekman found that different facial expressions produced different physiological response patterns. Just combining facial muscle activity patterns could produce predictable heart rate and hand temperature increases or decreases. Synthetic faces seemed to illumine the whole body with emotion-appropriate patterns of physiological activities.

Paralysis of Feeling

If synthetic faces can turn on feelings, paralyzed faces can turn off feelings. Psychologist Ben Twerski, co-author of a chapter in a book on paralysis, discussed how facial muscle paralysis patients suffered more depression than other paralysis patients. In a conversation, we speculated, that perhaps, their facial muscles weren't stimulating and exercising the conditioned feeling responses, the patterns that are turned on in the brain and which the brain activates when people make happy faces.

In one study, military veterans with spinal cord injuries reported decreased experience of emotion after their injury. The more extensive the spinal cord damage and resultant greater loss of body sensation, the greater was their loss of their ability to feel emotion. Patients described their feelings as cold, as mental rather than feeling and emotional.

"But I can't make a fake smile," so many people respond when asked to turn on a fake or synthetic smile. I tell them to do it anyway! The goal of emotional self regulation is to teach individuals to learn to find their own buttons for activating the patterns of good feelings built into their nervous system. The other side of the coin is the need to identify how they inhibit good feelings. I explain to patients, that when we create a synthetic smile, we usually experience feelings that flicker between the real; "feeling-good" and; "I'm just faking this and I feel silly or stupid" feelings. The reason we can actually switch to feeling genuinely good just by creating a synthetic smile is response pattern activation. The activation of facial muscle patterns usually genuinely associated with good feelings actually facilitates the turning on of the real thing--a feeling-good, conditioned response.

New patients often resist instructions to smile. They resist, saying: "I can't smile," "I don't want to smile," "It feels silly," or "strange" or "It doesn't feel real so I don't want to do it."

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One theme has run through my work for the past 40 plus years-- a desire to play a role in waking people up, raising their consciousness and empowering them. I was the organizer founder of the Winter Brain, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology and StoryCon Meetings and president of Futurehealth, Inc., with interests in (more...)

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