Just smile to remember a smile

Want to be happy? Your facial expression might be able to help you more clearly remember good times — and bad.

For example, people smile to recall happiness, grimace to recall pain, and frown to recall anger.
Using facial expression to help recall an emotion

“Theories of embodied emotion state that in order to process an emotion we first reproduce the facial movements of the expression induced by that emotion,” Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati (International School for Advanced Studies, aka SISSA) researcher Jenny Baumeister says.

woman smiling on phone“In practice, if we watch someone smiling, we tend to smile as well in order to appreciate what that person is feeling. We applied this finding to memory and assessed whether it is also true when we’re trying to recall an emotion.”

Baumeister is the first author of a 2015 paper in Acta Psychologica, which assessed whether the re-enactment of an emotional expression — for example, smiling or frowning — improves the ability to recall the corresponding emotion.

In the experiments, participants were invited to perform a memory task involving emotions.

To control participants’ facial expressions, the researchers devised two experimental conditions: when participants had to remember the emotions, their faces could be either completely free or ‘blocked’ by a clay mask, “very similar to the ones normally used in cosmetics. Once applied to the face, clay hardens and blocks facial expression,” says Francesco Foroni, SISSA neuroscientist and co-author of the study.

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The results were clear: performance on the memory tasks with the face in blocked condition was significantly worse than with the face in “free” condition.

“The data confirm the hypothesis that ‘re-enacting’ the motor pattern associated with the emotion helps to recall that emotion. This suggests that even during the storage phase of memories, we also encode the motor information and re-use it during retrieval,’ says Raffaella Rumiati, SISSA professor and study coordinator.

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