“When you’re smilin’ the whole world smiles with you”

Aug 14, 2020, 17:38 PM by Dr. Sally Robinson


When songwriters, Joe Goodwin, Larry Shay and Mark Fisher wrote the above lyrics, it is doubtful they had study the works of Charles Darwin and Paul Ekman on human expressions.  However they did express a universal human truth about smiling.  

Darwin’s work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, looked at certain human expressions that appeared common to all peoples.  In his times this was a bold statement that all people, whatever race, shared a common heritage.  Darwin realized something that all babies know instinctively and that is that the human face is highly expressive and instantly captivating.  Newborn babies prefer a human face, even a part of a human face, to any other shape. In the second month the infant is smiling and responding to caregivers smiles.  When a baby smiles it is difficult for caregivers not to respond not only with smiling themselves but in altering the environment to make the baby smile more. 

The human face can make many expressions of emotion, estimates range from 4,100 to 10,000.  Humans are extremely sensitive to the subtlest alteration of mood or expression even when they are unconscious of noticing the changes.  There are more than 40 muscles involved in facial expressions.  There are whole regions of the brain devoted solely to recognizing faces.  These changes can be as subtle as slightly dilated pupils and may last only a part of a second.  In the 1960’s Paul Ekman, PhD studied facial expression in remote tribal people and found that there are six universal expressions: anger, disgust, fear, pleasure, sorrow and surprise.   

The most universal expression of all is the smile.  No society has been found that doesn’t respond to the smiles in the same way.  True smiles are brief between two-thirds of a second and 4 seconds.  A spontaneous smile involves the contraction of the orbicularis oculi muscle in each eye and we don’t have independent control over those muscles. Dr. Ekland states a false smile is intended to convince another person that positive emotion is felt when it is not.  False smiles are typically more asymmetric and do not involved the muscles around the eyes.  They may drop off the face too abruptly.  A false smile only covers the actions of the lower face and lower eyelids.  You can make your mouth smile but not your eyes sparkle.  Many have noticed that an insincere smile didn’t go to the eyes. 

Dr. Ekland says that all humans indulge in “microexpressions”, flashes of emotion lasting no more than a quarter of a second that reveal our true emotions.  When babies flash this true emotion indeed the whole world smiles with them.  The adult recipients of this gift of happiness work hard to insure that more smiles are part of their world.  It is the most positive reinforcement.  Babies smile instinctively.  Helping a child to grow up with a smile, laughter and satisfaction is a big part of development. 

Sally Robinson, MD
Professor, UTMB Dept. of Pediatrics

Keeping Kids Healthy published August 14, 2020

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