Do you smile because you’re happy, or are you happy because you are smiling? Darwin believed that facial expressions are indeed important for experiencing emotions. In The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he wrote that “the free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it…[whereas]…the repression…of all outward signs softens our emotions.” This idea was subsequently elaborated by the great psychologist William James, who suggested that “every representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement which is its object.”
Botox, which is used by millions of people every year to reduce wrinkles and frown lines on the forehead, works by paralyzing the muscles involved in producing facial expressions. A study due to be published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that by doing so, it impairs the ability to process the emotional content of language, and may diminish the quality of emotional experiences.
WE tend to assume that we see our surroundings as they really are, and that our perception of reality is accurate. In fact, what we perceive is merely a neural representation of the world, the brain’s best guess of its environment, based on a very limited amount of available information. This is perhaps best demonstrated by visual illusions, in which there is a mismatch between our perception of the stimulus and objective reality.
Even when looking at everyday objects, our perceptions can be deceiving. According to the New Look approach, first propounded in the 1940s by the influential cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, perception is largely a constructive process influenced by our needs and values. Recent research has provided some evidence for this: in 2006, psychologists Emily Balcetis and David Dunning, then at Cornell University, reported that an ambiguous figure tended to be interpreted according to the self-interest of the perceiver. They now show that the desirability of an object influences its perceived distance.