WNYC smile segment is online

By Carl Zimmer | January 26, 2011 1:03 pm

That was fast–I was just on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC to talk about smiles, and they’ve already posted the conversation on their site. You can listen to it there, or right here:

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A few minutes in, we talk about a mashup of Obama smiling in White House photos that’s been floating around (see below). When I pointed it out to Paula Niedenthal, my main source for my Times article, she likened his smile to the way we say hello on the phone. It always sounds the same, but that sameness doesn’t say much of anything about our emotional state.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Talks, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (3)

  1. johnk

    I find the idea that people distinguish false and real smiles via mimicry confusing and a bit self-contraditory.

    Niedenthal says that true smiles are involuntary and automatic, while false smiles are voluntary. She also says that we distinguish voluntary from involuntary smiles by mimicking smiles, through a mirror-neuron type system, to see how the smile feels on us.

    This suggest that we have no voluntary control, or conscious access to this part of the mirror-neuron system. Otherwise the false smilers would have their smile mimic a ‘real’ smile and fool the recipient. If smile receivers are so good at activating their mirror neuron system to distinguish false and real smilers, shouldn’t the sender be able to activate the motor set for real smiles just as easily? For example, couldn’t the sender imagine seeing a real smile, mirror it, and send those motor commands to his/her smile muscles?

    There are, however, signalers of emotion that are harder to control than the facial muscles: autonomic output. Blood flow to the face and tearing are two examples. Signal receivers certainly use these signals to detect emotions. And signal-receivers don’t use mirror neurons to detect these signals. Likely they can’t use mirror neurons, because there is no direct control of the ANS by somatic motor cortex, the home of mirror neurons.

  2. I have a friend who had her photo taken with Obama. He looked like one of those cardboard cutouts tourists have their picture taken with.

  3. Matt B.

    My brother smiles the same in every picture too. He always includes a smirk as if he just saw someone pull a prank on someone deserving of it. The distance of that smile from normal combined with his inability to get tired of doing it make me question his mental health.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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