Why is your forced smile so ugly? Neuroscience can Explain


“No, smile naturally!” Your friend exclaims as she tries to take the perfect instagram-worthy shot.

You know you’re smiling awkwardly, but you can’t help it. In fact, the more you try, the worse it gets. Why does this effortless act—which you perform multiple times a day—become curiously difficult when done on command?

It’s not that you’re a bad actor. The answer lies in your brain.

Your natural smile and your forced smile are handled by different brain regions, and only one region has a specialized circuit for smiling. A spontaneous smile arises from the basal ganglia—found between the brain’s higher cortex—and the thalamus, which is older evolutionarily.

The nightmare happens when you’re asked to smile on command. The verbal instructions are received by the higher thinking centres in your brain, such as the auditory and language centres. Then, the information is sent to the frontal lobe, which produces skilled movements by the action of the motor cortex.

“As far as the motor cortex (which is not specialized for generating natural smiles) is concerned, this is as complex a feat as playing Rachmaninoff though it never had lessons, and therefore it fails utterly. Your smile is forced, tight, unnatural.” – Phantoms in the Brain, Oliver Sacks, MD

When you see a friend, or something that elicits a smile-worthy emotion, the visual message reaches the limbic system (the brain’s emotional center), and is transmitted to the basal ganglia, which intiates the sequences requried to produce a natural smile. With the action of this circuit, you look genuinely happy!



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