The human mind is weird.
I think we’ve already established that, but I wanted to make mention of it, again.
Go grab a pencil and hold it between your teeth, long ways. Or use a finger. If you do this for long enough, you might notice a rise in your mood.
The idea behind this is that your mouth forms the shape of a smile when you hold the pencil between your teeth, and when you smile, you become happier.
That’s the theory, anyway. The James-Lange theory of emotion, specifically.
The James-Lange theory, named after William James and Carl Lange, who never actually worked together but had the same idea at roughly the same time, suggests that physiological changes – sweating, increase of heart rate, muscle contractions – aren’t caused by emotion, but rather, it is the other way around, such that one’s changing physiological state causes the emotions they feel. It sounds like a stretch, but the theory isn’t meant to explain why we experience any particular emotion; rather, it attempts to explain where emotion comes from.
For example, when one is put in a situation that can evoke a bodily threat (for example, encountering a snake), the body goes through certain physiological responses to escape the situation unharmed. This is the fight or flight response: For example, the body begins to breathe fast (hyperventilate) to bring more oxygen to the muscles in anticipation of, say, running away. The James-Lange theory suggests that one does not feel fear because they see a snake or because they are in danger, but rather, in experiencing their racing heart, their increased rate of breath, the lump in their throat – they feel the sensation of fear.
To be sure, this theory is not championed as the field of psychology’s definitive understanding of any and all emotion. There’s plenty of research showing that we can control our physiological behavior with our thoughts, and on an anecdotal level, people can recount instances where physiological reactions emerged as a result of their emotions.
All of that aside, there is some very interesting research that comes out in support of the theory that our physiology can influence our emotional experiences.
The most well-known example of this does relate to smiling – Strack, Martin, and Stepper (1988) conducted a study wherein three groups of participations were presented with funny cartoons and asked to rate how funny and amusing they were. Some participants were asked to hold a pen in their hand (the control group), while some participants were asked to hold a pen in their lips and others were asked to hold a pen between their teeth, resulting in facial expressions approximating a frown or a smile, respectively, but without the participants realizing the kind of expressions they were making (simply asking participants to frown or smile could theoretically cause them to feel sad or happier, so they wanted to rule that possibility out – this is called keeping the participants “blind” to the nature of the study). As one might expect, people in the “teeth condition” (smiling condition) rated the cartoons as more amusing than people in the “lip condition” (frowning condition).
But wait, it gets better.
One of the great things about the field of psychology is that we can do all sorts of clever experiments to test the same idea.
We’ve been talking about how changing physiology can change emotion – but what happens if the physiology can’t change?
Let’s talk about Botox.
Upon injection, Botox causes surrounding muscles to weaken and relax, smoothing out the skin above. Botox can cause temporary paralysis of the injected muscles, which raises a very interesting question related to the current discussion we’re having on emotion: if physiological behaviors such as muscle contractions cause emotion, what happens when those same muscles can no longer contract? One might theorize that somebody in such a state would experience a flattening of their emotions – they wouldn’t feel the emotions as much. One would be right.
Researchers at Columbia University did a neat experiment. Participants were asked to watch video clips meant to induce positive or negative emotions (e.g, America’s Funniest Home Videos or Fear Factor) before and after receiving injections of Botox or Restylane, a control drug that does not cause facial muscle paralysis like Botox does, and were asked to report their emotional experiences after watching the video clips. Participants receiving Botox reported less strength in their emotions than participants receiving Restylane did (although they still felt emotion), suggesting that the mild facial paralysis mildly dampened their emotional response (Davis, Senghas, Brandt, and Oschsner (2010).
Mind you, this is only one study, and the magnitude of significance (how much the groups differ) isn’t very large. It’s statistically significant, but it’s debatable whether Botox had any sort of meaningful effect on the participants’ emotional experiences. Whatever the case, I think we can all agree that it’s a very interesting finding, and a very interesting way to go about testing the theory of emotion.
Carlson, N. R. (2010). Physiology of behavior. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Davis, J. I., Senghas, A., Brandt, F., & Ochsner, K. N. (2010). The effects of BOTOX injections on emotional experience. Emotion, 10(3), 433-440. doi:10.1037/a0018690
Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (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. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1248