Emotional communication

Judith Copithorne image

Judith Copithorne image

It has been suspected for many years that if the body is forced to experience the signs of an emotion then the emotion will be felt. So… when we feel an emotion we will have a particular bodily expression of that emotion; and, if we have the bodily expression of an emotion we feel the emotion. If we are happy we smile and if we smile we will feel happy. This connection does not need to be obvious – if we are a tiny bit happy we will make a tiny bit of a smile and a tiny smile can increase our happiness a tiny bit.

A definitive experiment was done on this connection (Strack, Martin, Stepper; 1988; “Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis”; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (5): 768–777) and here is the abstract: “We investigated the hypothesis that people’s facial activity influences their affective responses. Two studies were designed to both eliminate methodological problems of earlier experiments and clarify theoretical ambiguities. This was achieved by having subjects hold a pen in their mouth in ways that either inhibited or facilitated the muscles typically associated with smiling without requiring subjects to pose in a smiling face. Study 1’s results demonstrated the effectiveness of the procedure. Subjects reported more intense humor responses when cartoons were presented under facilitating conditions than under inhibiting conditions that precluded labeling of the facial expression in emotion categories. Study 2 served to further validate the methodology and to answer additional theoretical questions. The results replicated Study 1’s findings and also showed that facial feedback operates on the affective but not on the cognitive component of the humor response. Finally, the results suggested that both inhibitory and facilitatory mechanisms may have contributed to the observed affective responses.The important aspect in this study is that the subjects did not think they were mimicking a smile or a frown or that they were being tested for their emotional state.

It later became clear that the reason that emotions are somewhat contagious is that we mimic others bodies and expressions. When someone smiles at us, we are inclined to smile back and it is very difficult to completely inhibit the return of a smile. It seems that this is a form of communication. We read others and others read us by our bodily emotional expressions.

What does failure to express an emotion with the body do? It can inhibit the emotion. It was found that people with facial paralysis that interfered with smiling showed increased symptoms of depression while people with botox treatment that interfered with frowning had their depression symptoms decreased. (Lewis etal 2009 J Cosmetic Dermatology).

And now it is found that interference with bodily expression of emotion can interfere with understanding the emotions of others. When we mimic another’s facial expression is when we can understand their state of mind.

A recent paper shows this effect. (Baumeister, Papa, Foroni; “Deeper than skin deep – The effect of botulinum toxin-A on emotion processing”; Toxicon, 2016; 118: 86) Here is the abstract:


  • Effect of facial Botox use on perception of emotional stimuli was investigated.
  • Particularly perception of slightly emotional stimuli was blunted after Botox use.
  • The perception of very emotional stimuli was less affected.
  • After Botox use, reaction times to slightly emotional stimuli increased.
  • Specifically weakly emotional stimuli seem to benefit from facial feedback.

The effect of facial botulinum Toxin-A (BTX) injections on the processing of emotional stimuli was investigated. The hypothesis, that BTX would interfere with processing of slightly emotional stimuli and less with very emotional or neutral stimuli, was largely confirmed. BTX-users rated slightly emotional sentences and facial expressions, but not very emotional or neutral ones, as less emotional after the treatment. Furthermore, they became slower at categorizing slightly emotional facial expressions under time pressure.”

The press release for this paper (here) gives more details. “The thankfully temporary paralysis of facial muscles that this toxin causes impairs our ability to capture the meaning of other people’s facial expressions. … The idea (embodied cognition) is that the processing of emotional information, such as facial expressions, in part involves reproducing the same emotions on our own bodies. In other words, when we observe a smile, our face too tends to smile (often in an imperceptible and automatic fashion) as we try to make sense of that expression. However, if our facial muscles are paralyzed by Botox, then the process of understanding someone else’s emotion expression may turn out to be more difficult.

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