Before you read this any further, take a pen and place it like a cigarette between your front teeth. Now remove it and hold it with your pursed lips like you would normally hold a cigarette. Does it feel any different? Maybe? Now read on.
Our ‘emotional’ brain is constantly scanning the world for cues, but it is not just receptive to external cues. One very powerful cue it seems to respond to, is the pattern of contraction of our facial muscles.
Did you know that when you purse your lips (as if smoking a cigarette), you also activate your ‘frowning’ muscle, the ‘corrugator supercilii’? Take that pen, look at a mirror and try it. In contrast, holding the pen between the teeth activates the ‘zygomaticus major’, the ‘smiling’ muscle.
The effects of holding a pen in the mouth in various ways are extraordinary. In one study, a group of volunteers were made to hold the pen between the teeth and between the lips whilst being shown changing facial expressions. The ‘pen between teeth’ group ‘perceived happiness to persist longer when the expression changed from happy to neutral’. The group also registered happiness sooner, when a neutral expression turned into a happy one. In contrast, the ‘pen in lips’ group ‘saw sadness to persist longer when the expression changed from sad to neutral’ and also registered sadness faster when the expression changed to sadness. Activating smiling muscles made people register ‘positive’ facial expressions more strongly. The ability to focus on positive elements in our environment may protect us from burnout and depression, where this ability is diminished.
In another intriguing experiment, 70 healthy participants were divided into three groups. One group held a chopstick between the teeth. The second was asked to make sure to hold the chopstick between the teeth particularly firmly so as to activate the ‘zygomaticus major’ muscle even more strongly. The third group was given the same instructions as the second group but with the added instruction of contracting the muscles around the eyes (orbicularis oculi), mimicking a smile. The second and third groups both demonstrated a reduced stress response (as measured by heart rate) to a stressful challenge. In addition, the second group recovered faster from a stress response than the first group. The third group recovered faster still. Smiling dampened the physical response to stress!
It seems that a smile and a positive mood, in addition to reducing and helping us to recover from a stress response, also influence the negative emotional content of a memory.
We now come to a third study. This sounds too bizarre to be true, but simply holding a pen between your teeth while you ‘recall’ a memory seems to reduce the ‘emotional negativity’ content of that memory without affecting the recall of other aspects of the memory. Negative memories contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout and depression, so making memories more 'positive' will have a positive effect on mental well-being.
In theory, you might be able to use this ‘pen trick’ in several ways. (N.B. gritting your teeth won’t work – you need to bit against something thin and hard like a pen or chopstick. Also, simply paralyzing the corrugator supercilii with Botox will do nothing to actively engage your 'smile' muscles.)
First, if you are at a stressful board meeting or about to meet your boss, activating your 'smile' muscles with a pen or by smiling at any opportunity, may reduce the stressful impact of the event.
Second, if you are at your desk and feeling stressed, you could use the pen to activate your smile muscles since smiling for no reason may make you feel a little self-conscious.
Third, if you have just had a stressful encounter, just use the pen trick or smile at someone for as long as you can, every time your mind is drawn back to what just happened. This might lessen its ‘negativity’ load.
Fourth, if, like my boss, you want to never, ever lose your temper, then smile every time you are 'about to' lose it. If you smile just before your 'anger response' is triggered, you may be able to thwart the stress response. If your smile makes a tardy appearance, it will at the very least reduce your 'anger response' which involves the stress pathways. So, bit on the pen or smile.
Lastly, if you are looking for another reason to stop smoking, look no further. Smoking makes you frown!
Lobmaier JS, Fischer MH. Facial Feedback Affects Perceived Intensity but Not Quality of Emotional Expressions. Brain Sci. 2015 Aug 26;5(3):357-68.
Kraft TL, Pressman SD. Grin and bear it: the influence of manipulated facial
expression on the stress response. Psychol Sci. 2012;23(11):1372-8.
Arminjon M, Preissmann D, Chmetz F, Duraku A, Ansermet F, Magistretti PJ.
Embodied memory: unconscious smiling modulates emotional evaluation of episodic memories. Front Psychol. 2015 May 26;6:650.