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Dr. Zorba Paster: Brain is hard-wired to react to the face we see, so smile a lot

If you follow my Facebook page from Public Radio (, you can see that I have a new granddaughter – the most beautiful grandchild in the world ever-ever-ever.

They don’t live in Wisconsin like I do. They live in D.C., but with new “George Jetson” technology such as Facetime and Skype, we can see many smiles and giggles. The photos they send are nice, the videos are better – but the live face-to-face interaction is the greatest.

Even though it’s electronic, there is something about watching a smiling, giggling, happy baby that makes me and my wife, Penny, smile and giggle, too. It sends us through the roof.

This reaction is hard-wired into our brains. We do it automatically, and we learn this at a young age. Babies smile all the time, eliciting smiles in return. We mimic them; they mimic us.

The same is true at the other end of the spectrum – pouting and crying.

Recent research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, shows that “facial mimicry” allows us to empathize with others’ feelings.

We laugh with others and we cry with others. When they tear up, we tear up. When they’re angry, we might get angry, too, or we might just move away so we don’t get bowled over by their steam.

This facial mimicry allows us to work together in social situations – to extract information from our surroundings and take appropriate social action.

But what if we can’t interpret correctly?

My mom had a botched operation when she was a child, leaving her with a facial droop. When she smiled, it was a crooked smile. People who didn’t know her would often misinterpret her feelings, asking her if she was sad or if something was wrong. They didn’t know how to interpret her expression. Sometimes that made her very sad.

The UW research showed how this was a common complaint in people who were stroke victims or Parkinson’s patients, or people like my mom with peripheral nerve problems.

And then there are those with cognitive problems who have difficulty processing information. The research pointed out that if we can better understand exactly what goes on with facial mimicry, we might be able to develop training for people who have problems interacting with others.

How hard-wired is the idea of facial mimicry? For that answer, let’s look at another animal species, the beloved canine.

Our dog, Izzy, understands our emotions, or at least that’s what we think. When Penny was recovering from surgery, Izzy didn’t leave her side.

Research in the journal Current Biology showed that dogs do the same thing as people – they look at faces. Dogs can discriminate between happy and sad faces on photos.

The researchers took photos of people the dogs knew and photos of strangers. Some showed happy faces; others showed angry faces. The dogs responded to the happy faces by moving toward the photo. When they saw the angry faces, they moved away.

My spin: Facial interactions matter a lot. Just like we have speech and physical therapy, we might in the near future have smile therapy.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a physician, professor, author and broadcast journalist. He hosts a radio program at 3 p.m. Sundays on WBFO-FM 88.7; email him at

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