I experienced a post-pandemic first last week, flying for the first time in nearly 18 months (to attend an in-person meeting no less). Then, upon my return home, I learned something even more exciting. Our church is returning to in-person worship next month. I can’t wait to pass the peace face-to-face.
It was in flying that I realized neither of these encounters are quite back to normal. Why? Because of the masks.
Having flown with our three girls over the years, I have enormous sympathy for parents traveling with young kids, especially when a parent is doing the flight solo. Sure enough, one such mother was across the aisle from me on an early morning flight to O’Hare. She had her toddler with her and while fussy at times, her boy was remarkably well behaved.
So I did what is a normal part of my air-travel etiquette—smiling both to the parent and the child. I waved and smiled at the boy only to catch his eye as he quickly buried his head into his mama’s side. It was then that I realized all he could see was my purple Northwestern University mask and a waving hand. My smile was hidden.
Upon my return home and learning of our forthcoming return to worship, I made the connection. In person worship would also be masked. Our expressions of emotion will be veiled.
“Facial Feedback Hypothesis”
Pull out a psychology text book and you will probably find something about the “facial feedback hypothesis.” With roots going all the way back to Darwin’s 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the idea is that our facial expressions can impact our emotional experiences. To force a smile, even when mad or sad, can lighten our mood. The opposite is also true, to force a frown can be a real downer.
The classic study in 1988 had subjects put a pen in their mouths in a way that either forced them to bare their teeth (a forced smile) or purse their lips. They then tested its impact on mood. This proof of the facial feedback hypothesis became a psychological “fact” that appears in many text books.
But efforts in 2016 to replicate the finding were generally unsuccessful. (The Dive Deeper section includes several links to resources that discuss why this was the case.)
We know the brain tells the muscles in our face to express whatever emotion we are feeling. But it is unclear if the feedback also goes from the facial muscles back to the brain in a way that can change our emotional state. More recent studies suggest it might, though it is probably premature to draw any conclusions at this point. But it is interesting to wonder if enacting a smile can change our mood.
There appears to be less controversy in the scientific literature around facial mimicry—the idea that my smile should have made that boy and his mother respond in kind. It is true of most emotions, and may have something to do with mirror neurons (another unsettled scientific topic). If the facial feedback hypothesis is indeed true, it is how one’s mood becomes infectious. If my facial muscles form a smile in front of a small group, they will smile and that could genuinely improve the mood of everyone in the room. The same, of course, is true if I frown or grimace.
Interestingly, this feature appears to have some deep evolutionary history as it has been seen in gorillas and most recently in bears. Mimicry is central to so much learned behavior, it is not surprising that it is found in other species.
- FiveThirtyEight details the history of the facial feedback hypothesis research while this NPR piece considers some of the reasons why a forced smile may not genuinely make us happier.
- The Association of Psychological Science details the history of research on smiling circa 2011.
- Fortunately, a mask cannot completely hide our emotions, since these expressions influence our entire face, our eyes, and even our voice.
- Researchers hope one day to mine our facial expressions as the next frontier in big data.
- Old Testament scholar Terence E. Fretheim considers God’s smile in this commentary on Numbers 6.
God’s Gracious Grin
Scripture includes veiled faces (Ex. 34:35, 2 Cor. 3:18) and countless expressions of emotion. The most famous smile comes in the priestly blessing from Numbers 6: “The Lord make his face to shine upon you.” It is the expression of the grace God offers each and every one of us. It is more contagious than any grin shared amongst friends. It penetrates through the masks that separate us from God and now from one another. It can comfort both parent and child, even in the worst of traveling moments. It is that gracious expression often heard at the close of worship that should trigger genuine joy.
But like our masked smiles, God’s grin is not one we see directly. We only see evidence on the edges of it. We see its edges in the stories of God interacting with us in Scripture as well as in our experiences of God in creation and with one another.
So as we gather, some of us still masked in certain contexts, we too must look to the edges of our masks to see our faces shining upon one another. As this emotion researcher describes, a mask does not cover all evidence of happiness. “A real smile does not only move the mouth. Facial muscles—the zygomaticus major and the orbicularis oculi—also contract. The corners of the mouth turn up, and laugh lines appear around the eyes.”
The return to travel and worship, at least for me, are long awaited. They are signs of a return to normal. I am so very thankful for the ways God’s face continues to shine upon us through this pandemic. May it be the emotional feedback to once again make our faces beam contagiously towards one another.