Lean back in your chair, fold your hands on your stomach, close your eyes, and smile. Now try to think of some incident that really made you furious. Probably you can’t do it, unless you erase that smile and frown. Alternatively, knot your fists, frown, and try to imagine an incident that made you extremely happy. You will probably start to smile or else not maintain the image.
Or try this: Think of a high-pitched beeeeeeep. You will probably feel your vocal cords contract to match the pitch. Now think of a low pitched BEEEEEEEP, and your vocal chords will relax to match that pitch.
These are examples of what the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio calls the somatic (bodily) response – in possibly oversimplified terms, you cannot feel an emotion unless, as Damasio says, you can literally feel it, if not in your gut, then in your body.
Thus, it was no surprise to me to read in the LA Times that injections of Botox in a certain muscle involved in frowning slowed people’s ability to comprehend “negative emotional language.” In short, if you cannot frown, then your ability to understand emotions that would cause frowning is diminished. When I read the article, I thought I got some idea of how Thomas Huxley felt when he read about Darwin’s conception of natural selection.
Researchers led by psychology graduate student David Havas at the University of Wisconsin–Madison asked 40 women who were awaiting Botox injections to read certain sentences on a computer and press a key when they thought they understood each sentence. The women were retested after their Botox injections and were significantly slower to understand sentences that conveyed negative emotions but not sentences that conveyed positive emotions. There was no indication that the women responded to positive emotions faster after the injections, but the researchers administered a mood-analysis test to confirm that the women were not generally happier after the injections. The result is consistent with other experiments that relate processing of emotionally charged information with facial expression, as described in the LA Times article.