The Great Botox Experiment in Mood Enhancement

Suppose that the people around repeatedly smile or shake their heads. Although you may not notice it, it is very likely that soon you too will begin to smile or shake your heard. And it is likely that this will affect how you feel and what you think. Or at least this is what social psychology tells us.

In one experiment that demonstrated this ‘chameleon effect’, subjects were recorded unconsciously imitating the movements of an experimenter. In another experiment, when subjects contorted their faces in a way that paralleled smiling, they felt happier. And when subjects were told to engage in tasks that required them to move their heads as if they nodding or shaking it, this affected how easy it was to persuade them of something—it was easier to persuade them if they were nodding their head, harder if they were shaking it! (though only if the argument was good—see here for details.) What’s all this got to do with botox?

Well, as we all know, besides making skin look a bit younger, botox (or botulinum toxin) freezes people’s facial expressions (or more accurately, it makes skin looks younger by freezing expression). As such it offers a perfect way to further test the connection between facial expression and feeling. In a recent paper, scientists used fMRI to see how a frozen expression might affect people’s feelings. They found that when subjects were asked either to observe or imitate photos of sad and angry faces. And, as expected, the brains of those subjects who had been given botulinum toxin responded differently. In particular, they found that “during imitation of angry facial expressions, reduced feedback due to botulinum toxin treatment attenuates activation of the left amygdala and its functional coupling with brain stem regions implicated in autonomic manifestations of emotional states.” Such mechanisms of unconscious imitation and of feedback between one’s expressions and behaviour and one’s inner states, the authors suggest, might explain how emotions are transferred between people in social contexts.

Although being forced to smile probably won’t cure anyone of depression, it is still amusing that feeling and thought can be influenced in such simple ways, given how often we hear worries about the use of drugs such as Prozac to change mood or about brainwashing and brain control. It’s a nice illustration of the law of unintended consequences. The millions of Americans who are now reportedly using botox might in effect be unwitting participants in a mass experiment in mood enhancement. If these people are less capable of feeling anger than other people, they might feel happier overall, as some cosmetic surgeons have recently speculated. By affecting the mood of people around them, they might also be making others happier. 

But this research also raises other interesting questions. Philosophers have often denied that we can have duties or reasons to have certain feeling because they thought that feeling are not under our control, and how could we be held responsible for what is not under our control? No one denies, of course, that we can influence our emotions in indirect ways, for example by avoiding getting into circumstances which would elicit certain emotions. So few deny that we can be held responsible for our emotions at least in this indirect sense. But these simple and ingenious experiments, and other psychological research into the regulation of emotion, suggests that there are all sorts of fairly straightforward ways in which we can directly influence (though not entirely control) our emotions. What we feel is more up to us than some philosophers think, and this means we have greater responsibility for what we feel than some philosophers (and many people) would like to think. We tend to think badly about people who pretend to be, say, friendly or sympathetic. But this research suggests that such people are doing something right: they really are trying, not only to appear as they ought to, but also to feel as they ought. (Janet Plant, a chief scientific adviser to the British government, recently suggested that people should try to smile instead of taking prozac!)

If we are more responsible for what we feel, and if what we feel is influenced in unconscious ways by what others feel, then we need to be more vigilant. But we also need to be more vigilant for the way our own feelings might influence those of others: we might also be more responsible for what others feel. Philosophers have recently begun to be interested in the epistemology of testimony, in the way in which I can know something just because you told me, even if I haven’t confirmed it myself, and even if I know very little about you. In some peculiar way, it seems that I can inherit your justification, and thereby gain knowledge about the world, simply on the basis of your words. It would be interesting to see if something similar could happen with our reasons for feeling: whether the direct transfer of emotion from person to person can be a rational process, whether I can ‘inherit’ your reasons to feel happy or sad without even knowing what these are.

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