How a smile in your pocket can help overcome depression and anxiety

  • By Jasmine Springer

Smile at the world and the whole world smiles at you

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We have all heard the saying; when you smile at the world, the whole world smiles with you and now neuroscientists are putting the time worn adage to the test.

A new project by University College London is aiming to find out if simply looking at a smiling face could help ease depression and anxiety.

Javier Elkin and Professor Parashkev Nachev have developed a new app called PocketSmile which sends a smiley faced image to smartphones throughout the day in the hope it could actually cheer people up.

It follows recent research which suggests that when people see someone smiling, their own smile muscles involuntarily activate. The emotion appears to be contagious and it is virtually impossible to avoid mimicking the expression.

“The contagion of emotional states is a fundamental feature of human beings. The brain is constantly trying to predict what is going to happen next.” Professor Parashkev Nachev

Researchers now believe that emotions and expressions are totally symbiotic, happen at exactly the same time, so triggering one automatically activates the other. Theoretically therefore it follows, that smiling, or seeing a smile, even when you don’t feel happy should stimulate happy thoughts.

Elkin explained: “We know that smiling is contagious. But is the emotion also contagious? Is happiness contagious as well? That’s what we want to find out. If you see someone smiling and you consciously try not to smile back at all, and keep a very neutral face, it quickly becomes awkward. Mimicry is inbuilt within us.”

The scientists are hoping that thousands of people will sign up to the PocketSmile  app program, which takes 20 days. Participants are initially asked about their levels of happiness and depression before being sent images of smiling faces for 10 days and then landscapes for 10 days as a control.

If the app is found to have a beneficial effect on mood it could be used as a stop-gap for depressed people while they wait to be referred for therapy, following an initial diagnosis of anxiety of depression.

“It is a nudge intervention,” added Elkin.  “Obviously it’s not for people who are severely in need, it’s not supposed to tackle major depression. But if it works, the long term goal will be to give people the app while they are waiting for their referral to a professional, because it may take up to two months before they see someone. This might be able to help them sustain themselves until they can get a referral.”

Scientists say emotions and facial expressions act like a ‘push-pull’ effect. If you block a negative emotion, a positive effect comes out.

However blocking positive emotions can have the reverse action. Prof Nachev has worked with patients who have complete facial paralysis and research has shown that it paralyses their emotions.

Prof Nachev said: “The reality is an emotion and it’s expression go hand in hand. So if you alter the expression you may well alter the emotions. The crucial point is that the expression might have an effect on the mood because it runs in parallel, it’s not secondary. The two are tied together. Not only is having, or inducing a facial expression in one’s self potentially helpful at changing mood, it’s also the case that you can induce it simply by viewing another face.”

It is thought that humans mimic each other to help bonding and also to stay alive. Canned laughter is used in comedies to induce the same response and make jokes sound funnier. In contrast, if you see fear in someone’s face it makes sense to be frightened because whatever is endangering them, could also endanger you.

In the future the team hope to work on projects which could alter the sound of the voice to make is sound less anxious, or create an avatar of a person in which they look calmer.

“The obvious application for this is call-centre where you can make voices soothing both for yourself and for the other listeners, so even though the call-centre worker is really annoyed or angry he founds perfectly soothing,” added Prof Nachev.

“Then we move to the realm of avatars and the idea is we form some kind of reasonably compelling digital representation of yourself which becomes a distorted digital mirror in a way that is beneficial to you. This isn’t about misrepresenting you to the outside world but it’s about recalibrating the way you think about yourself so as to improve the way we can relate to ourselves.”

To take part in the project download the app here 

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