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Lessons for Life: Don't forget to smile

Can our facial expressions affect our mood and have an impact on those around us? According to Dr. Eric Finzi, author of the book "The Face of Emotion," they certainly can.

Finzi, a dermatological surgeon who spent nearly two decades researching facial expressions and how they affect mental well-being, gave the example of a former U.S. Marine he treated who had lost so much weight that the skin around his mouth had settled into a permanent frown.

"(It was) so severe that when I walked into the room, I felt anxious. I understood consciously why he had a frown and that he wasn't frowning at me, but I still could not suppress my own anxiety of his frown," Finzi said.

Finzi said that even if there are medical issues behind facial expressions (or lack thereof), the impact can still be felt. For example, those who are depressed have more activity in the muscle between the eyebrows, known as the corrugator muscle. And those with no muscle activity in the face at all may have trouble emoting, he said.

"For people who suffer from Moebius syndrome, which is the inability to move facial muscles, they often explain how they have to tell themselves to be happy or sad," he said. "The happiness or sadness doesn't occur naturally to them. They are intellectualizing their feelings."

Here are some of the things Finzi has discovered in his years researching facial expressions:

There's some history behind his theories.

"In 1890, (American philosopher and psychologist) William James talked about how to smooth the brow ... he would say if you did this, he would be surprised 'If your heart does not thaw,'" Finzi said. "Charles Darwin wrote that if you give full force to venting some rage, it will actually create more in you. This was in his famous book 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,' which at the time (1872) was a best-seller."

Our minds mirror other people's facial expressions.

Finzi said copying another person's expressions is critical to feeling empathy, and it's something our brain's are wired to do unconsciously.

"If you're having lunch with a friend and they start looking sad, your mind will try to understand what's going on in their brain by re-creating a little bit of their facial expressions," he said. "And this is all unconscious behavior."

Thinking happy thoughts can generate happy feelings.

"If you just sit there and think a happy thought ... you will increase activity of the smile muscle and decrease the activity of the frown muscle," Finzi said. "So thinking a happy thought changes the facial expression and changing the facial expression changes your thinking."

There is more space in the brain for interpreting faces than there is for interpreting anything else.

"Your brain is wired this way because you need to recognize people and you need know if that person next to you is a foe or a friend," he said. "You can tell this by looking at their face. These are primal instincts."

He is selective about Botox treatments in patients who are prone to depression.

"Any patient of mine (who) is depressed, I would think twice about treating the wrinkles around the eye or even around the mouth because a true smile for me is a smile that involves the mouth and the eyes," Finzi said. "You don't want to make it harder for someone to smile. I only treat the frown area for those who are depressed."

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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