“Levator Labii Superioris Alaeque Nasi”, my good friend exclaimed with a cynical smile on his face. Was it the euphoria induced by the Russian spirit tossed with a slice of lemon or just the nostalgia from medical college days? Either way, even after decades of graduation, he still recollects getting stumped at the anatomy viva voce for not remembering this long expression. For all those who are still wondering what this is about, LLSAN is one of the forty odd muscles on our face. Like my friend, there may be many medicos who avoided memorizing names of all facial muscles and paid a price during tests. However, there is no doubt that expressions facilitated by movements of facial muscles are one of the most important indicators of human emotions.
The development of a rich linguistic system is often regarded as a defining progress that shaped human society. Unlike other animals, humans can string together tens of thousands of meaningful words without significant effort or training. At the same time, we are also blessed with a very complex system of non-verbal communication tools like gestures, expressions and symbols. Eminent psychologist Paul Ekman assessed each facial muscle-movement and figured out that human beings can make at least ten thousand types of facial expressions. In real life, about three-thousand of those could be related to some form of emotion. Today, if I have to pick one emotion from that long list, it has got to be the SMILE. Even though many experts suggest that there is much beyond the face to our smile, let’s focus on the two important parts that combine to create this beautiful expression - the lips and the eyes. And if you have already pictured a beautiful smiling face, read on.
Evolution of Smile
The human smile can signify a wide range of meanings from being hearty, cold, friendly, a smirk, sympathetic to even fearful and nervous. One of the first scientists to study non-verbal communication and its evolution was Charles Darwin. In his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he speculated that most of our emotional expressions are inborn and evolved from ancestral animals. According to contemporary neuroscientist Michael Graziano, this evolutionary heritage could well have emerged from a protective sensory-motor loop that has nothing to do with communication. He argues that the simple roots of modern day smile could have been handed over to humans from the age old defensive mechanism that monitored the surroundings and organized protective movements in apes and monkeys.
In some way, a smile is an uncanny expression. The upper lip lifts to expose the teeth, the cheeks cluster upward and the skin around the eyes crinkles. At times, we come across fake smiles too; at the odd wedding party, when about to click that selfie or from a clan especially during the time of elections. It was the 19th century French neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne who first noticed that a cold, fake smile was often limited to the mouth, whereas a genuine, friendly one involved the eyes. In his honor, the genuine smile is called a Duchenne smile. Modern smile analysis studies have reinforced this observation and have established the fact that there are two muscle groups involved in smiling, one voluntary and other involuntary. Anyone can fake a smile by contracting the Zygomatic Major muscles, which pulls the corners of the mouth upwards towards the cheek bones. But a genuine smile involves contraction of an additional pair of muscles, the Obicularis Oculi which pull the skin surrounding the eye towards the eyeball. When someone flashes a smile next time, let the expert in you spot if it’s fake or not. And while you are at it, do remember that it’s the ability to pull this off flawlessly that separates the professionals from the rest of us.
Smile in the Digital-age
More often than not, you would be reading this article on a smartphone. And you would be no stranger to that simple icon with a yellow circle enclosing two dots and a curve, which is always waiting for your touch command. Yes, we are talking about the ‘smiley face’ emoticon. Termed ‘happy face’ in the US, ‘peace love mark’ in Japan or a ‘Sourire’ in France, historians have identified crude versions of modern-day smiley dating back to 4000 years in Turkish pottery and in medieval stone engravings.
However, the modern history of ‘smiley face’ began ironically around the same time when both Coldwar and Vietnam War were raging. In 1963, a Massachusetts based freelance artist named Harvey Ball had designed a bright yellow circle with black oval eyes and a creased smile to cheer up insurance workers. Almost a decade later, it was a young French journalist named Franklin Loufrani who foresaw the commercial potential of the smiling yellow face and went on to secure its trademark. What followed were lucrative licensing deals spanning across candies, jeans, film-packaging, journals, notebooks, pencils and what not. The advent of computers led to text based emoticons thus marking the birth of a new universal language. Today, hundreds of variants of ‘smiley face’ are an integral part of our daily digital conversations. From a one-time fee of about $50 that the inventor Harvey Ball received to an estimated $500 mn per year generator of royalties, the new universal language has come a long way in terms of spreading smiles. Though we may never know if the digital-age smiles are genuine or not.
Window to our Soul
“There is a road from the eye to the heart that does not go through the intellect”. A romantic probably doesn’t need any further explanation to these lines of English writer GK Chesterton. Later in the 20th century, a landmark study by psychologist Eckhard Hess reflected those poetic words. While eyes play many roles in non-verbal communication (e.g. locking, averting, blinking etc.), Hess had focused on change in the pupil size. His research led to a field known as pupillometrics which demonstrated that dilated pupils mean expression of care, interest and attention while smaller pupils indicated the opposite.
Inspired by the research of Hess, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explored further on the subject. He noticed that pupils are sensitive indicators of mental effort, they dilate more if the problems are harder than easy. In his international best seller Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman explains that during mental multiplication, the pupil normally dilated to a large size within a few seconds and stayed as long as the individual kept working on the problem and contracted immediately when they found a solution or gave up. Hence, it’s intuitive that one person can use another’s pupil size as a source of information of feelings and attitudes. As Hess had quipped, professional Bazaar shoppers wear dark glasses in order to hide their level of interest from merchants. So next time when you may want to express yourselves, you know what to wear or pass.
The evolved human smile is both complex yet simple. Glossy or matte, a shade of lipstick may make smiles more vibrant. And a dab with mascara may make eyelashes dreamier. But for those with an eye for fine details, none of that can hide the real emotions deep down.
Speaking about smiles, someone recently asked which my all time favourite smile is. An instant search helped retrieve a few touching moments from the brain’s memory disk. Recovering back from the brink of death due to diabetes complications, there was Fatima’s profound smile at the time of discharge from hospital; that tongue-in-cheek smile of my little niece when she was coercing me to dance to the rhythm of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’; those millions of smiles one get to witness at the arrival terminals of airports across the world, and of course that enigmatic Monalisa smile. By the way, which are the ones topping your list of heart-touching smiles?
The author is Co-founder & Director @ BioQuest Solutions, a globally emerging Knowledge Services Organization that has been partnering with clients across the life-sciences value chain since 2005.
The facts and views expressed in the article are that of the author