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Calm Your Face, Calm Your Mind

A quick tip for improving tranquility.

By now I expect you to be smiling, or at least smirking, which, as I pointed out in my last post, will improve your enjoyment of this blog. But there’s another facial muscle, which, if you master it, can improve your tranquility.

Think about the lower middle part of your forehead, just above where your unibrow would be if you didn’t see Damon The Eyebrow King every month. Is there tension there? Are you concerned about something? This muscle is called the corrugator supercilii, and it pulls your eyebrows down and together, causing your forehead to wrinkle (i.e. it makes your skin corrugated). It gets used to express displeasure, anger, worry and a host of other negative emotions. However, your furrowed brow itself is perhaps your greatest source of consternation and discontent. In the same way that your brain notices when your “smile” muscles are flexed and thinks you’re happy, your brain notices when your corrugator supercilii is flexed and thinks “Oh, I must be upset or worried about something.”

Several experiments have studied what happens when people are forced to furrow their brow. In general these studies have found that people with furrowed brows generate more negative emotion. For example, one study taped golf tees to each eyebrow and asked subjects to touch them together (that’s right: golf tees taped to your eyebrows; this is serious science people) (Larsen et al, 1992). Subjects viewed and rated a series of pictures, and when their golf-teed brows were furrowed they experienced more sadness. Another study simply asked participants to “push their eyebrows together” when viewing pictures (Duclos and Laird, 2001). They found that furrowing the brow increased feelings of anger and disgust in the subjects, and made them less happy, less agreeable and less interested.

On a related side note, another study from Germany asked subjects to furrow their brow while looking at pictures of famous people and rate how famous they were. When subjects’ brows were furrowed they were less impressed by the fame of the celebrity, and judged them to be less famous.

So if your eyebrow muscles are tensed, you feel more negative emotions and fewer positive emotions. What happens when they relax? Well, some interesting evidence comes from aging women with too much money who want to look a few years younger (Lewis, 2009). I’m talking about Botox (note to the one previous commenter: this blatant sexism is used for humorous effect). Short for botulinum toxin, Botox is a neurotoxin that gets rid of wrinkles by paralyzing certain facial muscles. And when that muscle is the corrugator supercilli then it becomes very difficult to create a furrowed brow. People who get this treatment often get fewer feelings of anxiety simply because they can’t create the facial expressions associated with anxiety. Unfortunately they sometimes feel less joy as well, as they can’t express excitement or surprise as easily.

The facial expression of a furrowed brow is a large part of what it means to feel, and create, negative emotions. When you start to feel anxious or stressed or angry, notice if your brow is furrowed. Try relaxing your forehead, and it will help diminish the feeling.

This is a common tactic in yoga. As you enter a particularly difficult pose, and your muscles start tensing and your breathing quickens, your yoga teacher may tell you to relax your forehead. It is very difficult to achieve inner peace when flexing the corrugator supercilii.

One last interesting fact about the corrugator supercilii: on bright sunny days we often contract it (along with squinting) to try to reduce glare from the sun. So while it might be a beautiful day out, you’re sending signals to your brain that you’re slightly upset. That’s why sunglasses are so great. While I couldn’t find any studies on this, I hypothesize that sunglasses would make you calmer because of their effect on facial feedback, not just because you look cooler.

So next time you’re getting frustrated with your laptop, or your kids, or all those morons on the freeway, take half a second to notice your forehead. Just relax it a little. If you still want to be pissed off and in a bad mood, that’s fine; it won’t bother me.

If you liked this article then check out my new book on the neuroscience of depression, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.

Or become a fan of Alex Korb PhD on Facebook.

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