Face Malaise: Fewer muscles to smile than to frown?

He hadn't expected they had  meant "I'll wipe that smile off your face!" so literally.

He hadn’t expected they had meant “I’ll wipe that smile off your face!” so literally.

In a lot of ways I am biased against smiling. Well, in one way. My camera, which is of the digital variety, has an admittedly cool feature whereby it can recognise if someone is smiling and as a result take their picture. I suppose the point of this smile recognition setting is to catch the moment of smiling for a better picture rather than just before or just after, making the person look like they’re about to say something. Most likely something dull. Like perhaps trying to explain the smile recognition function on their digital camera. My camera refuses to recognise my smile. When the smile recognition function is on and the camera is pointed at me, it will not take my picture if I smile. Or I suppose I should say if I do what I refer to as smiling. According to my camera I’m doing it wrong. It’s not really a problem. If people are misguided enough to want a photo of my incompetent face rictus then they can just point their camera at me and press the necessary button. It’s just another tiny irritation. Like the camera is judging me. Like in the episode of The Simpsons (and there’s always an example episode of The Simpsons) where Bart has sold his soul to Milhouse and subsequently the automatic doors won’t open for him.

So apparently I am not good at smiling. This is at least partly why I find the well known saying, “it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown” annoying.  Firstly it’s not even necessarily true, although it is more complicated to work out than you might expect. Plastic surgeon, Dr David Song, counting the muscles that make the most significant contributions to the respective facial expressions concluded that it takes 12 muscles to smile and 11 muscles to frown. So already the expression about expression is proving to be untrue. However despite smiling taking more muscles (although notably not many more) Dr Song argues that it’s still easier to smile than to frown. He argues that generally people smile more than they frown, so the muscles responsible for smiling are in better shape. I am unaware of any evidence behind this claim, which in itself makes me frown more than it makes me smile.

The exact number of muscles needed to smile rather than frown is a relatively complex thing to determine.  Everybody smiles or frowns in different ways as individuals and between individuals. My effort as a smile undoubtedly looks different to your much sunnier effort. Also you are likely capable of a large range of facial expressions which can be all called smiles or frowns, each requiring slightly different muscles. For example real smiles or “Duchenne” smiles use more muscles than “fake” smiles. A Duchenne smile involves contraction of the zygomatic major muscles (raising the corners of the mouth) and the orbicularis oculi muscles (raising the cheeks and forming so called crow’s feet or laughter lines). A fake smile is more likely to only use the zygomatic majors. Some studies argue that Duchenne smiling is more associated with positive emotions than smiles using less or other muscles. Either way, when someone asks you the otherwise inane question, “What makes you smile?” you can now smugly respond “The zygomatic major.” I will not be held responsible for any punches to the face received as a result of this.

Merely counting the muscles involved in generating a facial expression doesn’t necessarily tell us how easy that facial expression is. Certain facial expressions may use fewer but bigger muscles which may use more energy. More common facial expressions may use muscles more efficiently and with less energy as Dr Song argues is the case for smiling.

But none of this matters unless you’re exceptionally lazy. We’re talking can’t even be bothered to get your toenails to grow lazy. I’m not an expert on smiling although I have seen it done dozens of time. Even I know that most people don’t choose which facial expression to make based on which is easier. You don’t get grin wildly when you correctly disapprove of Paddy McGuinness because frowning is supposedly more effort.  The facial expression which requires the least amount of effort would surely be a slack-jawed, blank expression like I imagine the viewers of Hollyoaks constantly have.  The saying could then be appropriately adapted to “it takes fewer muscles to be expressionless than to facially emote” for those who are so concerned about the energy used by a face. In any case you’d think using more facial muscles would be a good thing. Frowning might be the only form of exercise that person gets all day. Unfortunately despite this I can’t see Charlie Brooker’s Frownercise: Scowl yourself, taking off. Generally the system is you feel and/or want to display an emotion and you make the appropriate face. Overall the face made is unlikely to involve individual calculations as to which one uses the least energy. Although it might explain why George Osborne looks like that.

On a side note, while I say you feel an emotion and then make the desired expression even that may be not quite as simple.  The facial feedback hypothesis argues that facial movement can in itself affect mood. Strack, Martin and Strepper in 1988 told participants they were taking part in a study concerning how difficult it was to do certain tasks without their hands. No not THAT task! The “frown” group were given a pencil to hold in their mouth, the tip pointing outwards away from the face. The “smile” group had to hold the pencil sideways in their mouth, forcing the lips into a smile. The control group had to hold the pencil in their non-dominant hand.

Regardless of facial expression, this has got to be a choking hazard.

Regardless of facial expression, this has got to be a choking hazard.

They were then asked to fill out a questionnaire like this. Then they rated the funniness of a cartoon. Participants in the “smile” group reported significantly higher amusement ratings than the other two groups. The argument here being that the facial changes, in this case enforced smiling, resulted in an emotional change. Even seeing others smiling can potentially produce changes in emotional experience.  Suzi Gage in her Guardian blog, Sifting the Evidence reported an experiment whereby manipulating the biases in perception of smiling could reduce self-reported anger and aggression in participants. While these studies are undoubtedly not methodologically perfect they do hint that it might be preferable to smile than to frown, even if it does in actual fact use more muscles.

Ultimately we can’t decide to alter our usually spur of the moment facial expressions based on which is the most energy efficient or uses the least amount of muscles. Neither can we walk around constantly smiling in the hope that it makes us or others feel a bit better. Nobody, not even the most ardent proponents of the saying “it takes more muscles to frown than to smile” would suggest that we should. But it is a stupid saying and it is factually wrong and pointing this out makes me happy. Even if you or my camera wouldn’t be able to tell.

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4 thoughts on “Face Malaise: Fewer muscles to smile than to frown?

  1. If someone did give that explanation for what made them smile, and a facial punch did result, how likely is it that – permanently or temporarily (not just at the immediate shock of being punched) – someone might not be able to smile ?

    Assume : One punch of reasonable ferocity in the kisser.

    • It would have to be a punch of sufficient ferocity to damage the structures so that the resulting expression wouldn’t be considered a smile or perhaps to damage the facial nerve. Or I guess an assault could lead to PTSD and or depression which may make smiling less likely although obviously not impossible. It’s a complex question.

  2. I was recommended this blog by way of my cousin.
    I’m not sure whether this post is written through him as no one else know such targeted approximately
    my problem. You’re amazing! Thanks!

  3. Why thinking so much when a smile can be an answer? I mean just smile, I am sure your camera will start loving you. I think you are somebody who thinks a lot; a learned gentleman. But then smiling is good and necessary for everybody, Isn’t it? 🙂

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