Our brains also devote a lot more attention to faces than many other visual stimuli because faces are so important to our lives when we are communicating as social animals, and it’s as social animals that we’ve succeeded as a species.
The human face has evolved to be the most expressive on the planet, containing around 52 muscles so the possibilities for communicating our feelings are infinite.
In fact, there’s a particular area of the brain devoted to analysing faces, called the fusiform face area. Now, however attracted physically you may feel to a potential mate, there’s no specific part of your brain devoted to analysing their pecs or buttocks!
Expressions are a hugely important part of how we communicate, and are difficult to suppress or fake.
Because our unconscious minds are so good at analysing facial expressions in minute detail and then instantly serving up an excecutive summary that we might call intuition or gut instinct, we’re usually very good at spotting, for example, smiles that aren’t genuine. So their owner may be communicating unwittingly, ” I am untrustworthy!”
You can choose consciously to smile, but our facial expressions are also governed unconsciously.
Can you tell your Zygomatics from your Orbicularis Oculi?
It’s easy to contract the zygomatic major muscles, which pull the corners of your mouth up, but a genuine smile involves contracting the orbicularis oculi, which pull the skin around the eyes towards the eyeballs, producing what’s often a very subtle effect.
This was first pointed out in the nineteenth century by the neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne, and we now know that these muscles have distinct neural pathways – a voluntary one for the zygomatic major, and an involuntary one for the orbicularis oculi.
And yet we know that it’s often a good idea to smile – in social situations, when meeting people, and when communicating well and seeking to influence people – even if we don’t want to.
Our “mirror neurons” mean we usually smile back when someone smiles at us, and we feel good about the interaction after the smile. The same networks in the brain are activated when we see an expression of happiness on someone else’s face as when we experience happiness ourselves. A genuine smile is an essential part of making a good first impression and building rapport.
So how can we smile genuinely when we might not feel like smiling?
The answer lies in what in NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) is known as state choice: choosing a physiological/emotional state that gives you a genuine smile, and having ways to do so quickly, at will.
This is something that people who are able to connect easily with many people do, either instinctively or through practice.
And there are many routes to it.
Communicating warmth – pick a word…
On our Personal Impact & Assertiveness and Influencing & Communication Skills courses we often suggest a simple technique of holding a word in your head which can then inform how you come across. You might choose a word like WARM or FRIENDLY or FUN!
Different words mean different things to different people. By accessing the part of you that is warm or friendly or fun you are much more likely to come up with a genuine smile than if you simply say “Cheese” or bare your teeth in a ghastly grimace in order to mask the uncertainty or fear that lies beneath.
Have a go!
Why not take a moment to choose a word to hold in your head just as you go into your next meeting and see what happens?