Brain Pickings

Lip Service: The Science of Smiles

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What crow’s feet have to do with authenticity and why you don’t remember your first smile.

Years ago, I did an undergraduate thesis on nonverbal communication and facial expression, a large portion of which revolved around the Duchenne smile — a set of anatomical markers that differentiate an authentic smile from a feigned one. The science of smiles is, of course, far more complex than the mere fake vs. real dichotomy — the universal expression of positive disposition lives on a rich spectrum of micro-expressions and nuances. That’s exactly what Marianne LaFrance explores in Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics — a fascinating new book drawing on the author’s research at Yale and Boston College, alongside a wide array of cross-disciplinary studies from psychology, anthropology, biology, medicine and computer science, to reveal how smiles impact our inter-personal dynamics and our life experience as social beings.

Facial expressions triggered by electric stimulation, from Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine by Guillaume Duchenne, 1862

Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

From Darwin’s famous early dabbles in the science of facial expressions to Duchenne’s legacy, from evidence of babies practicing smiling in the womb to studies suggesting a positive correlation between smiling and longevity, LaFrance blends a researcher’s rigor with a social scientist’s humanism in an intelligent yet highly readable narrative, complete with 38 illuminating black-and-white illustrations. LaFrance writes:

Smiles are universally recognized and understood for what they show and convey, yet not necessarily for what they do. Smiles are much more than cheerful expressions. They are social acts with consequences.

Wired has an excellent interview with La France, for a taste of the book’s fascination:

People think they can tell by looking at what the overall face looks like, but in fact there is one muscle [that shows sincerity]. It’s a muscle, called the obicularis occuli, that encircles the eye socket. Most people don’t pay very close attention to and it’s very hard to deliberately adopt. So when people genuinely smile, in a true burst of positive emotion, not only to the corners of the mouth, controlled by the zygomaticus major, but this muscle around the eye also contracts. This causes the crows feet wrinkles that fan out from the outer corners of the eyes and its also responsible for folds in the upper eyelid. Most people can’t do that deliberately.

Lip Service is part Liespotting, part The Exultant Ark, part whole new way of looking at our most powerful nonverbal expression of shared humanity.

Thanks to Flickr Commons for the endless bounty of public domain images

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People: A Meditation on Human Duality by Illustrator Blexbolex

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The difference between a dictator and a conductor, or why a biologist is the opposite of an astronomer.

From French illustrator Blexbolex — whose poetic meditation on time, impermanence and the seasons you might recall from earlier this month — comes People, a continued exploration of the world building on Seasons. Each charmingly matte and papery double-page spread features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex’s signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.


People, available in English for the first time, is part Mark Laita’s Created Equal, part Guess Who?: The Many Faces of Noma Bar, part something entirely new and entirely delightful, certain to make you smile, make you think, and make you wish you were a snake charmer.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Happy Birthday, John Locke: The Essential Locke in 3 Minutes

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What the Founding Fathers have to do with remix culture and the centerpiece of consciousness.

John Locke (August 29, 1632–October 18, 1704) is celebrated as the father of Liberalism, one of The Enlightenment’s greatest minds, and a pioneering British empiricist. Locke’s legacy lives on most memorably in the American Declaration of Independence and his theory of mind, the first to define the self through self-contained consciousness beginning with a tabula rasa at birth, is a foundation for much of today’s thinking on identity and selfhood. His timeless work is all the more relevant today — a parallel to his insistence on separation of powers between church and state exists in today’s debate about keeping corporation and state separate; the near-plagiarism of his ideology by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence raises questions of remix culture and intellectual property; and his rational case for cross-faith tolerance carries a message of exponential urgency today.

To celebrate his birthday, here’s a piece of priceless edutainment from the brilliant Three Minute Philosophy series (previously).

If you’d rather spend more than three minutes on one of humanity’s most influential thinkers, do so with The Selected Political Writings of John Locke and Lee Ward’s excellent John Locke and Modern Life, which examines the impact of Locke’s legacy on contemporary culture.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.