Category Archives: emotion

To see others as we see ourselves

In psychology there is a theory about the ‘fundamental attribution error’, the error in how we attribute causes to actions. When we look at our own actions, they are caused by our cognition in the circumstances in which we are deciding what to do. When we look at the actions of others, they are caused by their personality or character traits. So we do not really take into consideration the circumstances of others when we judge their actions. Nor do we consider the fixed patterns of our own behavior that do not enter into our conscious thoughts when we judge our own actions. We just do what is reasonable at the time and they just do what they always do. I can be too busy to help while they can be too thoughtless. This is a problem for us but at least we can understand the problem and occasionally overcome it. (My way to deal with it is to just assume that people are intelligent and well-meaning most of the time. If they do something that seems dumb or nasty, I look at the circumstances to see if there is a reasonable explanation. There very often is. I realize that this view of my own behaviour is somewhat ironic in its internal attribution – well nothing is perfect.)

But this problem with attribution is much greater than human social interaction. We do the same thing with animals. Elephants were tested for self recognition with the mirror test. If they recognize a black spot appearing on their forehead then it is clear that they know it is their forehead. Elephants failed the test and so they were said to not have a sense of self. It turned out that the mirrors used were too small. The elephants could not make out that it was an elephant in the mirror let alone themselves. If we start out underestimating an animals intelligence, and either not test that assumption or test it in a way that is inappropriate for the animal – then we are making a big attribution error.

There is an assumption on the part of many that vertebrate brains are quite different in the various sorts of vertebrates. This is not true! All animals with a spine have the same brain pattern with the same regions. All vertebrates have seven parts and no more or less: accessory olfactory bulb; cerebellum; cerebral hemispheres; medulla oblongata; olfactory bulb; optic tectum; and pituitary gland. There are differences in size, details and subdivisions, but there are no missing parts. (R.G. Northcutt; Understanding Vertebrate Brain Evolution; Integr. Comp. Biol. 2002 42(4) 743-756). There is every reason to believe that the brain works in fundamentally the same way in mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. And by and large, this same pattern of brain has the same functions – to move, find/eat food, escape enemies and so on. It is obvious that animals have motor control and sensory perception.

What evidence is there that other animals have emotions, memory, or consciousness? Can they be automatons with no mental life? The reports trickle in year after year that add to the evidence that animals have a mental life similar to ours.

Reptiles probably dream. Most animal species sleep, from invertebrates to primates. However, neuroscientists have until now only actively recorded the sleeping brains of birds and mammals. Shein-Idelson et al. now describe the electrophysiological hallmarks of sleep in reptiles. Recordings from the brains of Australian dragons revealed the typical features of slow-wave sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. These findings indicate that the brainstem circuits responsible for slow-wave and REM sleep are not only very ancient but were already involved in sleep dynamics in reptiles.(Shein-Idelson, Ondracek, Liaw, Reiter, Laurent; Slow waves, sharp waves, ripples, and REM in sleeping dragons; Science 2016 Vol 352 (6285) 590-596) These wave types in sleep also are evidence for a memory system similar to ours.

Fish don’t make noise or wave their fins to show emotion but that does not mean they don’t have emotions. “Whether fishes are sentient beings remains an unresolved and controversial question. Among characteristics thought to reflect a low level of sentience in fishes is an inability to show stress-induced hyperthermia (SIH), a transient rise in body temperature shown in response to a variety of stressors. This is a real fever response, so is often referred to as ‘emotional fever’. It has been suggested that the capacity for emotional fever evolved only in amniotes (mammals, birds and reptiles), in association with the evolution of consciousness in these groups. According to this view, lack of emotional fever in fishes reflects a lack of consciousness. We report here on a study in which six zebrafish groups with access to a temperature gradient were either left as undisturbed controls or subjected to a short period of confinement. The results were striking: compared to controls, stressed zebrafish spent significantly more time at higher temperatures, achieving an estimated rise in body temperature of about 2–48C. Thus, zebrafish clearly have the capacity to show emotional fever. While the link between emotion and consciousness is still debated, this finding removes a key argument for lack of consciousness in fishes.” (Rey, Huntingford, Boltana, Vargas, Knowles, Mackenzie; Fish can show emotional fever: stress-induced hyperthermia in zebrafish; 2015 Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20152266)

One of the problems with comparing the brains of different vertebrates is that they have been named differently. When development is followed through the embryos, many differently named regions should really have a single name. Parts of the tectum are the same as our superior colliculus and they have been found to act in the same way. They integrate sensory stimuli from various senses. They can register whether events are simultaneous. For example in tadpoles the tectum can tell if a sight and vibration stimulus are simultaneous. That is the same function with the same development in the same part of the brain in an amphibian and a mammal. (Felch, Khakhalin, Aizenmen; Multisensory integration in the developing tectum is constrained by the balance of excitation and inhibition. 2016 eLife 5)

We should be assuming that other vertebrates think like we do to a large extent – just as we should assume that other people do – and try to understand their actions without an attribution error.

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.

Roots of communication

Judith Copithorne image

Judith Copithorne image

20 or so years ago I took an interest in non-verbal communication and how it interacted with speech. A number of ideas became very clear in my thoughts: we communicate with our whole bodies whether we want to or even realize what we are doing; the gestures, facial expressions, sounds and postures that we use are evolutionarily very old; and, if we try to consciously plan our non-verbal communication, we are likely to send confusing and ambiguous signals. Communication in language only, stripped of its non-verbal patterns, has to change from the rules of verbal language to the rules of written language or it can be unintelligible. We rely on the non-verbal clues to know in what frame to interpret the words and rely on the cadence of speech to organize the connection of words and thoughts.

A recent post by M. Graziano in Aeon (here) is very interesting and worth a read. Here I am just pointing to the central idea of Graziano’s revelation. There is much more of interest in the original post.

Most vertebrates have a personal space which they monitor and protect. If they suspect an invasion of their space, they automatically react. Graziano gives a description of this reaction in primates, which protects vulnerable areas such as eyes, face, neck, and abdomen: “… he squints. His upper lip pulls up, bunching the cheeks towards the eyes. The head pulls down, the shoulders lift, the torso curves, the arms pull across the abdomen or face. A swipe near the eyes or a bonk on the nose might even produce tears, another component of a classical defensive reaction. His grunts begin to be tinged with distress calls.” This is not really communication on the part of the primate whose space has been invaded but a defense of himself that is innate and automatic. However, an observing primate can interpret the reaction as meaning that the defending primate actually, honestly feels threatened. Slowly, through evolution, this reaction, and parts of it, can become signals and symbols useful in communication.

In Graziano’s theory, smiles are a mild version of the facial defense of the eyes. It simply communicates friendliness and a lack of aggression by mimicking defense as opposed to offense. An exchange of smiles establishes a mutual non-aggression state. Even though we might think that showing teeth is aggressive, it is part of protecting the eyes. That can be seen more clearly in genuine smiles rather than polite or faked smiles, the ones which start with squinting around the eyes rather than the lifting of the lip.

Play is the situation giving rise to laughter in Graziano’s thinking. Play is governed in mammals by signals that keep the action from getting dangerous even if it looks it, like the safe words in S&M. These signals are universal enough that the young from different species can rough and tumble together without mishap. Laughter mimics the defense of personal space with a facial expression similar to a smile along with a stereotypical noise somewhat like an alarm cry. When it is intense there is a protection of the abdomen by bending forward and putting the arms across the stomach. A laugh seems to indicate that the defenses of the personal space have been breached. Someone has reached in and tickled protected parts of the body, or something, a joke perhaps, has surprised you. You are allowing the game to invade your space because you are enjoying it and the laugh communicates that.

Then there is crying. Now the communication is “enough” because I am hurt. If it is intense there is a sobbing cry and lots of tears, the hands protect the eyes and a defensive posture forms a little ball. (Laughter can even end up as crying if it is strong enough.) Tears are asking for relief and comfort – and they usually get it, as all children seem to know.

It is somewhat amazing that so much communication might be made out of one innate reaction through the process of evolution. Being able to effectively communicate is a powerful selective force. “And why should so many of our social signals have emerged from something as seemingly unpromising as defensive movements? This is an easy one. Those movements leak information about your inner state. They are highly visible to others and you can rarely suppress them safely. In short, they tattletale about you. Evolution favours animals that can read and react to those signs, and it favours animals that can manipulate those signs to influence whoever is watching. We have stumbled on the defining ambiguity of human emotional life: we are always caught between authenticity and fakery, always floating in the grey area between involuntary outburst and expedient pretence.

Liking the easy stuff

It is not just true that if something is not understood, it is assumed to be easily done. It is also true that if it is easier to grasp then it is more likeable. A recent study looked at this connection between fluency and appreciation. (Forster M, Gerger G, Leder H (2015) Everything’s Relative? Relative Differences in Processing Fluency and the Effects on Liking. PloS ONE 10(8): e0135944. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0135944)

The question Forster asks is whether the judgement of fluency is absolute or relative. If we have internal reference standards for liking that depend on the ease of perceiving then the level of liking is an absolute judgement. Internal standards seem to be the case for perfect pitch and the feeling of familiarity when something is recalled from memory. But in the case of the effort of perception, our feeling of liking is a relative judgement – a comparison with other amounts of effort for other images.

Abstract: “Explanations of aesthetic pleasure based on processing fluency have shown that ease-of-processing fosters liking. What is less clear, however, is how processing fluency arises. Does it arise from a relative comparison among the stimuli presented in the experiment? Or does it arise from a comparison to an internal reference or standard? To address these questions, we conducted two experiments in which two ease-of-processing manipulations were applied: either (1) within-participants, where relative comparisons among stimuli varying in processing ease were possible, or (2) between-participants, where no relative comparisons were possible. In total, 97 participants viewed simple line drawings with high or low visual clarity, presented at four different presentation durations, and rated for felt fluency, liking, and certainty. Our results show that the manipulation of visual clarity led to differences in felt fluency and certainty regardless of being manipulated within- or between-participants. However, liking ratings were only affected when ease-of-processing was manipulated within-participants. Thus, feelings of fluency do not depend on the nature of the reference. On the other hand, participants liked fluent stimuli more only when there were other stimuli varying in ease-of-processing. Thus, relative differences in fluency seem to be crucial for liking judgements.”

Not what you do but how you do it

I have been interested in communication using non-verbal channels for some time. Communication through posture, facial expression, gesture, tone of voice is an intriguing subject. Lately I have encountered another channel, vitality forms of actions. A particular action, say handing something to another person, can be done in a number of ways implying rudeness, caring, anger, generosity etc. A person’s actions can have a goal and an intent but can also give hints as to their state of mind or emotions during the action. Of course, we can be conscious, or not, of giving signals and conscious, or not, of receiving them – but there is communication none the less.

There is a new paper on this subject which I can not access. And there is an older similar paper which I have been able to read. The two citations are with the abstracts below. The research has looked at what differs in actions that have different vitality forms: time profile, force, space, direction. The diagram illustrates the difference between energetic and gentle action.

vitality graphs

vitality graphs

The stimuli were presented to the participants in pairs of consecutive videos, where the observed action (what) and vitality (how) could be the same or changed between video-pairs. To counterbalance all what–how possibilities, four different combinations of action-vitality were created: (i) same action-same vitality; (ii) same action-different vitality; (iii) different action-same vitality and (iv) different action-different vitality. All video combinations were presented in two tasks. The what task required the participants to pay attention to the type of action observed in the two consecutive videos and to decide whether the represented action was the same or different regardless of vitality form. The how task required the participants to pay attention to the vitality form and to decide whether the represented vitality was the same or different between the two consecutive videos regardless of the type of action performed.

A number of areas of the brain are active during an action but only one was active with ‘how’ and not ‘what’ tasks. This was the right dorso-central insula.

Here is the abstract of the older paper (Giuseppe Di Cesare, Cinzia Di Dio, Magali J. Rochat, Corrado Sinigaglia, Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern, Daniel N. Stern, Giacomo Rizzolatti; The neural correlates of ‘vitality’ recognition: a fMRI study; Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2014, 9 (7): 951-60) The observation of goal-directed actions performed by another individual allows one to understand what that individual is doing and why he/she is doing it. Important information about others behaviour is also carried out by the dynamics of the observed action. Action dynamics characterize the vitality form of an action describing the cognitive and affective relation between the performing agent and the action recipient. Here, using the fMRI technique, we assessed the neural correlates of vitality form recognition presenting participants with videos showing two actors executing actions with different vitality forms: energetic and gentle. The participants viewed the actions in two tasks. In one task (what), they had to focus on the goal of the presented action; in the other task (how), they had to focus on the vitality form. For both tasks, activations were found in the action observation/execution circuit. Most interestingly, the contrast how vs what revealed activation in right dorso-central insula, highlighting the involvement, in the recognition of vitality form, of an anatomical region connecting somatosensory areas with the medial temporal region and, in particular, with the hippocampus. This somatosensory-insular-limbic circuit could underlie the observers capacity to understand the vitality forms conveyed by the observed action

And the abstract of the newer paper ( Di Cesare G, Di Dio C, Marchi M, Rissolatti G; Expressing our internal states and understand those of others; Proc Natl Acad Sci 2015) Vitality form is a term that describes the style with which motor actions are performed (e.g., rude, gentle, etc.). They represent one characterizing element of conscious and unconscious bodily communication. Despite their importance in interpersonal behavior, vitality forms have been, until now, virtually neglected in neuroscience. Here, using the functional MRI (fMRI) technique, we investigated the neural correlates of vitality forms in three different tasks: action observation, imagination, and execution. Conjunction analysis showed that, in all three tasks, there is a common, consistent activation of the dorsocentral sector of the insula. In addition, a common activation of the parietofrontal network, typically active during arm movements production, planning, and observation, was also found. We conclude that the dorsocentral part of the insula is a key element of the system that modulates the cortical motor activity, allowing individuals to express their internal states through action vitality forms. Recent monkey anatomical data show that the dorsocentral sector of the insula is, indeed, connected with the cortical circuit involved in the control of arm movements. correlates of vitality forms in three tasks: action observation, imagination, and execution. We found that, in all three tasks, there is a common specific activation of the dorsocentral sector of the insula in addition to the parietofrontal network that is typically active during arm movements production and observation. Thus, the dorsocentral part of the insula seems to represent a fundamental and previously unsuspected node that modulates the cortical motor circuits, allowing individuals to express their vitality forms and understand those of others.

Included graph is Fig S2 of the paper – Giuseppe Di Cesare, Cinzia Di Dio, Magali J. Rochat, Corrado Sinigaglia, Nadia Bruschweiler-Stern, Daniel N. Stern, Giacomo Rizzolatti; The neural correlates of ‘vitality’ recognition: a fMRI study; Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2014, 9 (7): 951-60

Here is the caption for the graph: Fig. 2 Kinematic and dynamic profiles associated with one of the actions (passing a bottle) performed by the female actress with the two vitality forms (gentle; energetic). (A) Velocity profiles (y-axes) and duration (x-axes). (B) Trajectories (gentle, green line; energetic, red line). (C) Potential energy (blue line), that is the energy that the actress gave to the object during the lifting phase of the action; kinetic energy (red line), that is the energy that the actress gave to the object to move it with a specific velocity from the start to the end point. (D) Power required to perform the action on the object in an energetic (blue solid line) and gentle (blue dashed line) vitalities. As it can be observed in the graphs, the vitality forms gentle and energetic generally differ from each other on each of the tested parameters.


Stone faced

The extent to which emotions are shown and felt in the body as well as in consciousness is being uncovered. Facial expressions are an example but also posture and bodily feelings. A recent paper looks at the effect of an immobilized face on remembering and recalling emotional words. This adds to previous experiments on the initial recognition of emotional words. This face-emotion tie is a case of embodiment. By and large we automatically show our emotions on our faces and we read others’ emotions from their faces. Further if we force our face into the expression of a particular emotion, we feel that emotion. It is a two-way street as far as communicating and displaying emotion. What about processing emotion? Can the response to emotional words be affected by the face? Yes.

Here is the abstract for the paper (Baumeister, Rumiati, Foroni; When the mask falls: The role of facial motor resonance in memory for emotional language; Acta Psychologica Vol 155, Feb 2015; doi:10.1016/j.actpsy.2014.11.012): “The recognition and interpretation of emotional information (e.g., about happiness) has been shown to elicit, amongst other bodily reactions, spontaneous facial expressions occurring in accordance to the relevant emotion (e.g. a smile). Theories of embodied cognition act on the assumption that such embodied simulations are not only an accessorial, but a crucial factor in the processing of emotional information. While several studies have confirmed the importance of facial motor resonance during the initial recognition of emotional information, its role at later stages of processing, such as during memory for emotional content, remains unexplored. The present study bridges this gap by exploring the impact of facial motor resonance on the retrieval of emotional stimuli. In a novel approach, the specific effects of embodied simulations were investigated at different stages of emotional memory processing (during encoding and/or retrieval). Eighty participants underwent a memory task involving emotional and neutral words consisting of an encoding and retrieval phase. Depending on the experimental condition, facial muscles were blocked by a hardening facial mask either during encoding, during retrieval, during both encoding and retrieval, or were left free to resonate (control). The results demonstrate that not only initial recognition but also memory of emotional items benefits from embodied simulations occurring during their encoding and retrieval.

Processing into memory and retrieval from memory was inhibited for emotional words but not for neutral words when movement of facial muscles was blocked. “Benefits from embodied simulations” is one way to look at it. But it implies that emotion is not an activity of the whole body but of just the brain with the body doing some assistance (although I suspect the authors feel the assistance is very important). Over the spectrum of emotions we have the involvement to varying degrees of the bodies muscles including gut feelings, heart rate, breathing rate, flushing/blushing, goose bumps, skin temperature, hair movements, pupil size as well as skeletal muscles. This is not a little simulation add-on. We often feel the fright a fraction sooner than we recognize the danger. It sometimes takes a long time to figure out what exactly made us feel angry. And in a social animal the communication of emotion is important to peace and cooperation. We communicate automatically with face, voice, posture, and actions. It takes great skill and concentration to hide “tells”.

I think we should view emotions as integrated reactions of our whole body (the whole nervous system, not just our brain/mind) to our environment.


What is in a smile?


We distinguish genuine from fake smiles, even though we appreciate the polite sort of fake smile in many cases. I have thought it was a settled matter. Smiles are marked by the raising of the corners of the mouth and pulling them back. A broad smile (fake or real) opens the mouth by lowering the jaw. But only authentic smiles are marked by crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes. This is the Duchenne marker. Would you believe that it is just not that simple? The smile is a dynamic thing and research has mostly used static pictures to investigate smiles. A recent paper by Korb (citation below) examines dynamic smiles. Here is the abstract:

The mechanisms through which people perceive different types of smiles and judge their authenticity remain unclear. Here, 19 different types of smiles were created based on the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), using highly controlled, dynamic avatar faces. Participants observed short videos of smiles while their facial mimicry was measured with electromyography (EMG) over four facial muscles. Smile authenticity was judged after each trial. Avatar attractiveness was judged once in response to each avatar’s neutral face. Results suggest that, in contrast to most earlier work using static pictures as stimuli, participants relied less on the Duchenne marker (the presence of crow’s feet wrinkles around the eyes) in their judgments of authenticity. Furthermore, mimicry of smiles occurred in the Zygomaticus Major (smile muscle – positive), Orbicularis Oculi (Duchenne muscle – positive), and Corrugator muscles (frown muscle – negative). Consistent with theories of embodied cognition, activity in these muscles predicted authenticity judgments, suggesting that facial mimicry influences the perception of smiles. However, no significant mediation effect of facial mimicry was found. Avatar attractiveness did not predict authenticity judgments or mimicry patterns.”

In these experiments stronger smiles were found both more realistic and more authentic. This did not depend as much as previously thought on the eyes. The smile muscle action, the opening of the mouth and the lack of a frown in the brow were as important as the Duchenne marker. The subjects showed electrical activity in the muscles of their own faces mimicking the video being shown and whether the subject found the smile genuine could be predicted from this mimicry. The most clear mimicry was the combination of smile muscle and frown muscles. These two are correlated: in a smile the Zygomaticus is activated and the Corrugator is relaxed, while the opposite happens in a frown. The Masseter (jaw) muscle did not show mimicry. Since this is different from findings on static smiles, the question is raised whether smiles are judged by a different pathway when they are dynamic.

Embodiment theories propose that facial mimicry is a low-level motor process that can generate or modify emotional processes via facial feedback. However, other scholars favor the view that facial expressions are the downstream reflection of an internally generated emotion, and therefore play at best a minor role at a later stage of the emotion generation process. The main critique of the embodiment view is based on the observation that, in addition to their well-documented role in facial mimicry, the Zygomaticus and Corrugator muscles respond, respectively, to positive and negative emotional stimuli not containing facial expressions. However, the Orbicularis Oculi muscle is not clearly associated with positive or negative emotions and contracts, for example, during smiling (producing crow’s feet) as well as during a startle reflex in response to a sudden loud noise.”

This points to a low-level motor process because the Duchenne marker is mimicked in the Orbicularis muscle even though it is not actually a diagnostic for a smile. (It can occur in other situations and can be missing in some smiles.) It is more likely that the identification of a smile is due to mimicry than that mimicry is due to the identification of a smile. The authors suggest that this should be further investigated.

Nevertheless, the hypothesis that facial mimicry mediates the effect of smile characteristics on rated authenticity remains the most parsimonious one based on the fact that 1) facial mimicry is a costly behavior for the organism, 2) participants spontaneously mimicked the perceived smiles, and 3) this mimicry predicted ratings of authenticity. Importantly, the reverse hypothesis, i.e. that perceived authenticity may have caused participants’ facial reactions, seems less likely based on the finding that participants’ Orbicularis Oculi muscle was most activated in response to two types of smiles that contained the highest degree of the corresponding (marker), but resulted in very different ratings of authenticity.”

I hope that researchers will follow up on the idea that static and dynamic images of smiles are processed differently. Would there be clues in the order and timing of a smile unfolding that would point to its authenticity? If fake and genuine smiles are produced by different mechanisms then perhaps they would by quite different in their dynamics. Using avatars is a neat way to vary the dynamics of the muscle movements.

Korb, S., With, S., Niedenthal, P., Kaiser, S., & Grandjean, D. (2014). The Perception and Mimicry of Facial Movements Predict Judgments of Smile Authenticity PLoS ONE, 9 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0099194

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Why do we get pleasure from sad music?


Sadness is a negative emotion; and, we recognize sadness in some music; but yet, we often enjoy listening to sad music. We can be positive about a negative emotion. A recent paper by Kawakami (citation below) differentiates between some hypotheses to explain this contradiction.

The hypotheses that the response has to do with musical training (ie that the pleasure comes from the appreciation and familiarity with the art involved) was shown false by finding no difference in response between musicians and non-musicians in their experiments. “Participants’ emotional responses were not associated with musical training. Music that was perceived as tragic evoked fewer sad and more romantic notions in both musicians and non-musicians. Therefore, our hypothesis—when participants listened to sad (i.e., minor-key) music, those with more musical experience (relative to those with less experience) would feel (subjectively experience) more pleasant emotions than they would perceive (objectively hear in the music)—was not supported.

The key innovation in this experimental setup was that the subjects were not just asked how sad they found the music but were given an extensive quiz. For each of 2 pieces of music, played in both minor and major keys, the subjects rated the experience in terms of 62 words and phrases, rating both their perception of the music’s emotional message and the personal emotion they actually felt. Four factors were extracted from the 62 emotional descriptions: tragic emotion, heightened emotion, romantic emotion, blithe emotion.

As would be expected the tragic emotion was rated higher for the minor key and lower for the major key music for both perceived and felt emotion. Likewise, there is no surprise that the blithe emotion was the opposite, high for the major and low for the minor for both felt and perceived emotion. The heightened emotion was only slightly higher for the sad minor music over the happy major. Romantic emotion was moderately higher for the happy music over the sad. However, there were differences between felt and perceived emotion. These were significant for the minor music: it was felt to be less tragic, more romantic and more blithe than it was perceived. This difference between felt and perceived is not too difficult to imagine. Suppose you are arguing with someone and you make them very angry. You can perceive their anger while your own feelings may be of smug satisfaction. Although emotion can be very contagious, it is not a given that felt emotion will be identical to perceived emotion.

The hypothesis of catharsis would imply a deeply felt sadness to lift depression. But this is not what was seen. The next hypothesis the authors discuss is ‘sweet anticipation’. A listener has certain expectations of what will be heard next and a positive emotion is felt when the prediction is fulfilled. This could contribute to the effect (but not because of musical training).

A third hypothesis is that we have an art-experience-mode in which we have positive emotions from exposure to art. If we believe we are in the presence of ‘art’ that in itself is positive. “When we listen to music, being in a listening situation is obvious to us; therefore, how emotion is evoked would be influenced by our cognitive appraisal of listening to music. For example, a cognitive appraisal of listening to sad music as engagement with art would promote positive emotion, regardless of whether that music evoked feelings of unpleasant sadness, thereby provoking the experience of ambivalent emotions in response to sad music. ” Again this could contribute.

Their new and favourite hypothesis is ‘vicarious emotion’. “In sum, we consider emotion experienced in response to music to be qualitatively different from emotion experienced in daily life; some earlier studies also proposed that music may evoke music-specific emotions. The difference between the emotions evoked in daily life and music-induced emotions is the degree of directness attached to emotion-evoking stimuli. Emotion experienced in daily life is direct in nature because the stimuli that evoke the emotion could be threatening. However, music is a safe stimulus with no relationship to actual threat; therefore, emotion experienced through music is not direct in nature. The latter emotion is experienced via an essentially safe activity such as listening to music. We call this type of emotion

vicarious emotion.” … That is, even if the music evokes a negative emotion, listeners are not faced with any real threat; therefore, the sadness that listeners feel has a pleasant, rather than an unpleasant, quality to it. This suggests that sadness is multifaceted, whereas it has previously been regarded as a solely unpleasant emotion. ”

I find the notion of vicarious emotion could also explain why we can be entertained and enjoy frightening plays, books and movies. All sorts of negative emotions are sought as vicarious experiences and enjoyed. Many things we do for leisure and our enjoyment of much of art have a good deal of vicarious emotional content for us to safely enjoy and even learn from.

Kawakami, A., Furukawa, K., & Okanoya, K. (2014). Music evokes vicarious emotions in listeners Frontiers in Psychology, 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00431