When I was a kid, my family sang that song lyric a lot. I don’t know where it’s from, but I accepted the idea as true. My limited experience seemed to suggest that smiles were contagious, so I sang away without giving it much thought. Today in the New York Times Science section, there is an article summarizing the results of a study about the mechanism that really does make others smile with you. The study provides experimental evidence that the way we communicate our feelings to others through smiles and they way they receive that communication is through imitation.
Here’s how it works: When I smile, you unconsciously imitate it and the “imitation activates many of the same regions of the brain that are active in the smiler.” These are regions associated with emotions, so the observer actually feels what the smiler is feeling. This is important – the observer doesn’t just intellectually understand what the smiler is feeling, he feels the same thing and then he understands. Feelings precede understanding, and it’s all done through an unconscious process of modeling and imitation.
Those familiar with the work of the Raven Foundation will not be surprised by this result or surprised to learn that I smiled when I read it. Mimetic theory is a theory of the importance of unconscious imitation in human behavior, not just where smiles are concerned. Unconscious imitation is the process by which we grow and become ourselves, develop identities and form communities. It’s how we learn to love and what leads us into conflict (for a review of mimetic theory basics, see Adam’s
Mimetic Theory 101 series). This study reminds us that what is unconscious more often than not precedes our conscious explanations of it. Reason is always playing catch up, so we might as well keep on smiling.