Is this dog really smiling?
We beam when we’re cheerful, grin sheepishly when we’re guilty, smirk when we’re proud. It all seems so simple and obvious, but what do we really know about smiling?
In a new book called Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics, Yale University experimental psychologist Marianne LaFrance investigates the subtleties of smiling, showing how the familiar expression reveals more than we realize. Wired has an amusing Q&A with the doctor herself:
Wired.com: Why can smiles mean such different things in different cultures?
LaFrance: We acquire ways of knowing who is us and who is them. There have been fascinating studies where Australians and Americans were shown a bunch of face shots of other Australians and Americans. Their task was to identify which nationality, Australian or American, the person was. Shown neutral expressions, accuracy was no better than chance. But shown smiles, they were very good at guessing a person’s nationality. Subtle difference in a person’s smile are detectable, even if we can’t describe why.
Now there are also vast cross-cultural differences in the rules for smiling. Who is it OK to smile at, who not? For how long? For example, often when New Englanders go to the South, they wonder why Southerners are smiling all the time. Sometimes they feel everyone is charming. Sometimes the difference is met with dismay.
Rarely do we think, “Isn’t it interesting that another culture has different smiling rules?” We view them as being a different type of person. Now, at home, judgments based on a person’s smiling habits might be warranted. But when you’re talking about cross-cultural boundaries, those judgments can be really off-base.
Read more at Wired.
Image courtesy of Sn. Ho / Flickr
It turns out self-flagellating medieval monks had it right (sort of): there’s nothing like good, old-fashioned, self-inflicted pain to cleanse your conscience, according to the latest research.
Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, led by psychologist Brock Bastian, wanted to see whether feelings of guilt diminish with pain. To test this, they split a group of 62 volunteers into three groups and asked two of the groups to write about a scenario in which they rejected another person; the control group was asked to write about a non-guilt-ridden encounter. After assessing their guilt via a questionnaire, they had some volunteers dip their hands in warm water and others to dip their hands in ice water. Finally, the researchers assessed the subjects’ guilt levels once again, as well as their self-reported pain levels. As New Scientist reports:
Participants who had written about rejecting another left their hands in the ice bucket for longer than those who had written about a normal interaction. They also reported more pain – regardless of how long their hand was in the ice. Crucially, participants who placed their hand in ice later had less than half as much guilt, as measured by the questionnaire, as those who had put their hand in warm water.
He says that self-punishment might relieve guilt by functioning as “a signal by which a transgressor shows remorse to his or her victim when there are no other less painful means available, such as giving a bunch of flowers…. In line with this view, excessive forms of self-punishment could be perceived as a consequence of unresolved guilt,” Nelissen adds. [New Scientist]
But please, don’t go flagellating yourself the next time you feel a twinge of guilt–a simple sorry might be a better option.
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DISCOVER: I Didn’t Sin—It Was My Brain
What monkey mothers eat has a large impact on how skittish their offspring act in stressful situations like stranger danger–or the presence of a Mr. Potato Head in their cage.
According to researchers, even normal monkeys find the toy’s large eyes to be “mildly stressful.” But baby monkeys from mothers who were fed a high-fat diet (over 35 percent of calories from fat, modeled after a typical American diet) had a much stronger reaction to an encounter with the spud man, and also spazzed in the presence of an unknown human.
The study, presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference, found that in stressful situations, the female offspring were more anxious and the males more aggressive, explains LiveScience:
You might not be able to pick them out, but in the hectic noisiness of a movie’s battle scene there are a few primordial sounds of distressed animals. These types of sounds are used by audio engineers, knowingly or not, to elicit emotional reactions from viewers, researchers have found.
The research, published in Biology Letters, studied the films for the presence of “nonlinear” sounds, which are frequently found in the animal kingdom as cries for help or warning signals. Our ears are tuned to pick out these types of sounds and our brains are primed to respond to them, which made Daniel Blumstein wonder if they were also being used to evoke emotion. Wired’s Brandon Keim explains:
The harshness and unpredictability of these sounds is thought to be a vocal adaptation fine-tuned for quickly capturing a listener’s attention. And if that’s true, then “we might expect them to be also used by film score composers and audio engineers to manipulate the emotions of those watching a film,” hypothesized University of California, Los Angeles biologist Daniel Blumstein and his Biology Letters co-authors.
Serious scientists may disdain anecdotal evidence, but we have evidence that some of them are pretty good with an anecdote.
Last Thursday, the World Science Festival brought a collection of science geeks to The Moth, where the brave souls took the stage not to explain their work, but to tell stories of their lives in science. The evening’s biggest scientific celebrity was theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, winner of a 2004 Nobel Prize in physics. His story began with a phone call.
The editors of Scientific American were hoping he would write a rebuttal to a letter they’d just received. “The letter was from a man who I later learned was a banana farmer in Hawaii,” Wilczek recalled. “He was worried about black holes. He was worried about a particle accelerator that was being built on Long Island that could produce black holes, and he was worried that the black holes would swallow up Long Island and then the world.”
Who ever thought that couples could bond over nasal spray? But new research shows that a nasal spray containing the “love hormone” oxytocin helped make regular guys more empathetic and less gruff. Oxytocin is the hormone that strengthens the bond between nursing moms and their babies, and it’s also involved in pair bonding, love, and sex.
The spray was tested on a group of 48 healthy males–half received a spritz of the nose spray at the start of the experiment and the other half received a placebo. The researchers then showed their test subjects emotion-inducing photos like a bawling child, a girl hugging her cat, and a grieving man. Finally, they asked the guys to express how they felt.
The placebo group men reacted normally to the soppy pictures; which is to say they were either mildly uncomfortable or stoic. Whereas the group that had used the nasal spray were markedly more empathetic. The Register reports:
“The males under test achieved levels [of emotion] which would normally only be expected in women,” says a statement from Bonn University, indicating that they had cooed or even blubbed at the sight of the affecting images.
The study’s findings, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggest one trite application of the hormonal spray: Maybe a woman could give her undemonstrative husband a quick spritz to get him to really feel her pain, or to get him to coo over a kitten properly. But there might be a larger medical purpose too.
Researchers recently found that a dose of oxytocin can help autistic people become less awkward and more social. Now, they’re hoping that medication can also be developed to help socially withdrawn schizophrenics.
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DISCOVER: A Dose of Human Kindness, Now in Chemical Form
In honor of Valentine’s Day, we bring you the story of how hearts really can break. Doctors do occasionally diagnose someone with “broken heart syndrome,” but the patients aren’t necessarily the lovelorn dump-ees of the world.
The heart problem, which is more technically known as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, can be brought on by all kinds of emotional and physical stresses. Externally, someone with broken heart syndrome may appear to be having a heart attack, but the physical mechanism is actually quite different.
ABC News reports:
While a heart attack is usually caused by blocked arteries, medical experts believe broken heart syndrome is caused by a surge in adrenaline and other hormones. When patients experience an adrenaline rush in the aftermath of a stressful situation, the heart muscle may be overwhelmed and become temporarily weakened.
No matter how hard you try, it’s often difficult to cheer yourself up from a funk just by thinking happy thoughts. But making yourself disgusted—that’s easy.
Researchers had already identified the part of the brain that activates when we feel grossed out—the anterior insula and adjacent frontal operculum, or IFO. But a Dutch study has found that even reading or thinking about something disgusting can cause the same region of the brain to light up.