Mind, Body & Botox – Understanding Embodied Cognition & Emotional Analytics


 “When you’re smiling the whole world smiles with you…” – Louis Armstrong

From yoga to mediation, eating clean & green to evangelism we’ve been told innumerable times in countless ways about the mind-body-soul connection - the quintessential elements to ‘being human’. But how exactly do they interact and influence our connection with others, ourselves and our world?

Thinking with your body

Traditionally our brains have been viewed as the ‘computer’ solely driving our understanding, perception and action. Embodied cognition, however, evidences otherwise. Rather, our cognition is intimately grounded in our physical, bodily experience. Our brain is one part of a much broader system - a ‘feedback loop’– that includes our sensorimotor systems, ontological assumptions and our socio-cultural and physical environment. Our bodies can serve as a constraint to cognition, a distributor of cognitive information and/or as a regulator of cognitive activity. We are a brain in a body in a world and all of these aspects are in constant, subconscious conversation. Kant and Descartes had it wrong. “I” don’t “think therefore I am”, nor do “I” just think. I am, therefore I perceive, think, feel and act. ‘Knowing’ is not a noun; it is a verb, an activity. Everything that we know we’ve ‘learnt’ with our entire bodies.

Creatures of emotion

Neuroscientists like Gerald Edelman and Antonio Damasio note the importance of the mind-body connection to things such as our consciousness, emotion, self-awareness and will. While traditional ideas of science and rationality have long downplayed the importance of ‘un-empirical’, ‘touchy-feely’ emotion, evolutionary psychology suggests otherwise. Our emotions serve to self-regulate our behaviours, goal-driven action and our understanding of, and interactions with, others. Our emotions have played a pivotal role in guiding our evolution. And processing emotion involves somatic – bodily – responses. Think fight or flight, love and procreation. Humankind wouldn’t have got to where we are today without it. We wouldn’t ‘get’ each other either.

When we feel, or try to feel, connected to others we subtly imitate their movements, expression and language. Ever caught yourself replying in someone else’s accent? Smiling while taking a photograph? Noticed that you’re starting to look, sound, walk and talk like your best friend? It’s not just you and it’s far from accidental. It’s automatic. It’s the way our brains and bodies are linked, designed to think and feel; it begins at infancy. We have been learning behaviours, expressions and (non-)verbal communication through mimicry our entire lives. Studies have shown that couples that have been happily married for 25 years or more start to look like one another; they have been thinking, feeling and mimicking each other’s emotions for so long that they’ve developed the same wrinkles. This mimicry is an essential element to social interaction, cohesion, intimacy and empathy – ‘walking a mile in their shoes’, ‘putting ourselves in their position’.

Monkey see, monkey do

Facial feedback theory, first proposed by Charles Darwin all those years ago, has an answer as to why. When we perceive that someone else is happy, sad, scared or angry – whether that is through their body language, facial expression, tone, or over text message – our facial muscles automatically, rapidly micro-mimic their emotion due to ‘mirror neurons’ in our brains. This is how we, often subconsciously, make humour judgements, decode language and form our opinions of one another. This micro-mimicking of another’s emotion and expression is fundamental to empathy. When we ‘wear’ someone else’s expression we get a personal sense of what it is like to look, feel or sound like ‘that’.

Do it – smile, expose those pearly whites… give your screen your biggest Colgate grin. What does it feel like? Now scowl, frown, make yourself look as miserable as you possible can… You start to feel a bit like that too, don’t you? The micro-muscular contractions send signals which trigger different, emotion-specific areas of the brain. Our brain then ‘decodes’ this information and we ‘perceive’ and ‘feel’. Whether we are interpreting emotion or feeling it personally, the same areas of the brain are activated. But what happens when we don’t or rather can’t ‘mimic’ in this way?

 Botox on the brain

Mimicry and empathy are essential to an actor or actresses’ job description. Famed directors like Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrman have long been lamenting the Hollywood Botox bug saying it is getting increasing difficult to find actresses that can express a range of emotion. Botox (Botulinum toxin) ‘removes’ wrinkles by paralysing the facial muscles around the eyes, forehead and mouth, which would ordinarily contract to enable our physical expression of emotion. A study done by David Neal & Tanya Chartrand shows that it inhibits our reading of the emotions of others too. By preventing this ability to micro-mimic, simulate - or empathise – we thus inhibit our ability to interpret and process what another is feeling too.

 Numerous studies have supported this. Candidates that received Botox injections – as opposed to, say, Restylane which is a dermal filler and leaves facial muscles unimpaired - showed a significantly reduced ability, and speed, in the processing of emotion in textual, photographic and video forms. This is most prevalent with regards to subtleties in emotion. It is particularly interesting as this micro-mimicry not only gives us the ability to empathise with others - stimulating feelings of social connection and intimacy - but our emotion-appropriate reactions also give others the feeling of being ‘closer’ to and understood by us. In fact, amplifying these micro-muscular contractions – whether actively or subconsciously– improves our accuracy, ability to empathise and thus, perhaps, also our social bonds.

Yet another study got patients to actively mimic the sad, happy or angry expressions that they were shown before and after Botox treatment. It found that not only did Botox inhibit facial expression and emotion-processing, but because of these barriers to empathy and EQ (emotional intelligence) their brains exhibited less neural activity!

The science behind the smile

Affectiva, a pioneering US-based ‘neuro-marketing’ company, has made understanding this mind-body-emotion connection their business. Similarly to Gravity Ideas, Affectiva understands the importance of our behavioural, psychological and emotional engagement with content, products and technology. These global leaders have developed technologies that can “quantify emotion” by remotely tracking over 10 000 emotion responses. You can, in the comfort of your own home, turn on your webcam and watch advertisements, browse websites and engage with technology. Affectiva’s systems then interpret these micro-expressions to identify at exactly which millisecond you expressed what emotion, helping businesses design their products and content with their users’ mind’s in mind. Try it out, it’s fun!

Neural Sense is a local neuro-marketing firm. Like Affectiva they use technology to turn these emotional analytics into actionable insights. They also offer a range of wearable technology that tracks the electro-dermal activity of our skin to understand how our brains are working, being stimulated and when they’re (dis)engaged. These innovative firms understand the mind-body-emotion connection and the impact it has on our behaviours. They ‘get’ the science behind the smile and they help businesses to help you do it more; “you’re never fully dressed without one”.

So, if you do anything today, SMILE – it increases your face value. Just do it. Even if you don’t really want to, you won’t just be tricking others but yourself too; even a forced or fake smile triggers the same neural activity as genuine, ‘she-said-yes’ happiness. The average person smiles only 35 times per day - who aspires to be average? Go out there and give the world your best, biggest grin, as Louis said, “the great big world, the whole wide world will smile with you”.