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The Science of Faking a Smile

Why do yearbook photos, passports, and driver license photos always look so terrible? Find out on this Moment of Science: "The Science of Faking a Smile".

Why is it that certain photos of ourselves are without fail, well…horrible? Yearbook photos, passports, driver licenses… you’re probably remembering some pretty bad ones. But what is it about all of these experiences that makes us cringe at the very thought of looking happy?

As it turns out, our brains are the culprit.

As you step up at the BMV to have your photo taken, the clerk prompts you to smile, and your brain fires a signal to the voluntary muscles around your mouth to create that smile.

The primary motor cortex, a part of the brain’s frontal lobe, and the basal ganglia order the muscles around the mouth to contract, forcing the lips upward in the shape of a smile.

When something naturally strikes you as funny, different portions of the brain, the amygdala, and hypothalamus, automatically contract muscles around the mouth and eyes, creating a true, sparkling smile. That’s the reason it’s so easy to spot a fake smile verses the real thing.

A real smile transforms the whole face, bringing light and illumination from our lips to our eyebrows, while a forced smile involves only the lips and cheeks, leaving the upper half of the face unchanged.

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