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When you can’t smile...
June 26, 2018
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Kevin Portillo practises smiling every day at home. Usually after brushing his teeth. Or when stopping by the bathroom, or anywhere with a mirror.

He hooks an index finger into each side of his mouth and pulls gently upward. He puckers his face into a kiss, then opens wide into an O, trying to limber up his facial muscles. He practises both the Mona Lisa – slight, closed-lip – and a wide, toothy smile.

At least, he’s supposed to do his exercises every day. Being 13, he sometimes forgets, though he understands their importance.

“I need to stretch my cheeks,” he says. “I do it for a couple minutes. I have to do it every single day.” He exercises so much that his jaw sometimes hurts.

Kevin was born in New Jersey with a rare malignant vascular tumour, a kaposiform haemangioendothelioma, covering the left side of his face, squeezing shut his left eye and pushing his nose to the right. Immediately after his birth, doctors whisked him away to another hospital in another state – the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. His mother didn’t see him again until he was eight days old.

The doctor told Kevin’s parents that the chance of him surviving was slim.

But survive he did. However, the large tumour and the damage from its treatment prevented him from being able to do one of the most fundamental things humans do. Smile.

Most babies are born immediately able to communicate with the world around them in one way: by crying.

The second signal babies send out is a smile. Newborns can smile spontaneously, as a reflex. This is sometimes misinterpreted by new parents as a reaction to their presence, a reward for their intense concern and sleepless efforts. However, it’s not until six to eight weeks of age that babies smile in a social way. Blind babies do this at the same time.

That new parents sometimes optimistically interpret the first reflex smiles as meaning something more underscores the duality of smiling: there is the physical act, and then the interpretation society gives to it. The smile, and what the smile means.

17 pairs of muscles

On a physical level, a smile is clear enough. There are 17 pairs of muscles controlling expression in the human face, plus a singular muscle, the orbicularis oris, a ring that goes entirely around the mouth.

And as for the oft-cited folk wisdom about how it takes more muscles to frown than smile – the jury’s still out, especially as different smiles require different numbers of muscles.

One study of smartphone users from 60 countries showed that emoji with smiling faces are by far the most prevalent in messages. The most popular overall – the face with tears of joy – was picked as the 2015 Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries.

Just as this emoji expresses more than mere happiness – tears adding the ironic twist so popular online – smiles themselves can convey so much more than happiness. Interpreting their nuances is a challenge whether dealing with art history or interpersonal encounters or the cutting edge of artificial intelligence.

A 2016 study, published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behaviour, questioned thousands of people in 44 cultures about sets of photographs of eight faces – four smiling, four not.

In most of these cultures, people deemed the smiling faces to be more honest than the non-smiling ones. This difference was huge in some countries, such as Switzerland, Australia and the Philippines, but small in others, such as Pakistan, Russia and France. And in a few countries, such as Iran, India and Zimbabwe, there was no trustworthiness benefit to smiling at all.

Why? That question is also complicated, but in essence, the researchers concluded it has to do with whether a society is set up so that its members assume that other people are dealing with them honestly. “Greater corruption levels decreased trust granted towards smiling individuals,” the authors concluded.

Wrong impression

Without being able to smile, others “can get the incorrect impression of you,” says Roland Bienvenu, 67, a Texan with Moebius syndrome. “You can almost read their thoughts. They wonder, ‘Is something wrong with him? Has he had an accident?’ They question your intellectual ability, think maybe he’s got some intellectual disability since he’s got this blank look on his face.”

While those who cannot smile can blame the state of their facial nerves and muscles, those who can smile are often concerned with a different aspect of physiognomy: their teeth. More than $3bn is spent worldwide on teeth-whitening products, with billions more spent on braces and on purely cosmetic dentistry: straightening crooked teeth, for instance, or reducing the amount of gum that shows when a person smiles.

Caring for the state of your teeth is not a modern concern. The Romans had dentists and used chewing sticks and toothpaste. They preferred dazzling white smiles, sometimes rinsing their teeth in urine to enhance the effect.

Contrary to common modern perceptions, the ancients had surprisingly good teeth, for reasons that have nothing to do with dentistry. A CAT scan of 30 adult bodies recovered at Pompeii found they had “perfect teeth”.

Prior to the French Revolution, broad smiles in art were overwhelmingly the realm of the lewd, the drunk and the boisterous lower classes.

In The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris, Colin Jones argues that smiling reflected the gathering sense of individual worth that went along with the beheading of kings.

Smiles are definitely communicative – people smile more when in public than they do when alone, and more when interacting with others than when not.

In 1974, Leonard Rubin described three basic types of smile, based on his study of 100 people:

• The “Mona Lisa”, where the corners of the mouth go up and outwards and the upper teeth are exposed. The dominant muscle action is from the zygomaticus major. About two-thirds of people studied smile this way

• The “canine” smile, where the canine teeth are exposed. The dominant muscle action is from the levator labii superioris; 31 per cent of people smiled like this

• The “full dentured”, where the lips are pulled back strongly, showing both upper and lower rows of teeth. All muscles are equally dominant. Just 2 per cent of people were found to smile this way

Cosmetic surgeons, who have to be meticulous in identifying the smiles that their patients are paying good money to try to achieve, call these three types commissure, cuspid and complex, respectively.

Phuong Nguyen, a Philadelphia plastic and reconstructive surgeon, attempts to clarify the matter using celebrities. The Mona Lisa, he says, is the Angelina Jolie. The Tom Cruise smile is a canine smile, and a Julia Roberts is the full dentured smile. This is a subjective matter. Other doctors place Jolie in the second or third categories.

Arguably the most important researcher into smiles over the past 30 years has been Paul Ekman at the University of California. His 1978 Facial Action Coding System, written with Wallace V Friesen, seeks to create an atlas of nearly all possible human expressions. Ekman says, in his book Telling Lies, that their technique for measuring the face can distinguish over 50 different smiles.

Confused? You’re not the only one. Perhaps the best approach is to just grin and bear it…

The Independent

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