Got Game? Get Game Face On

Have you ever passed a stranger on the street and you could tell just by the expression on his face that he was having a miserable day? Or maybe you could tell he was happy or excited? Facial expressions don't just communicate our feelings to others, they also communicate with our own brain and influence our neural chemistry.  

We know that being around happy people generally makes us happier and being around unhappy people generally makes us unhappier. Thanks to mirror neurons, when we see someone with a frown or scowl, our own brain starts to generate the same stress chemicals as the unhappy person. Just as when we someone smiling or laughing, we get a good boost of good chemicals. But in recent years, we've also learned that expression isn't just a result of one's feelings; expression also communicates that feeling to the brain. 

The interaction between expression and mood works both ways. recent meta-analysis of combined data from 138 studies testing more than 11,000 participants from all around the world determined that facial expressions aren’t just the result of different feelings, but they can also influence our feelings.  For example, the act of smiling can make you feel happier, scowling can make you feel angrier, and frowning can make you feel sadder.  

When we smile, the brain interprets that we must be happy and it produces the same happy chemicals it produces when we are genuinely happy which intensifies the good feelings.  Conversely, when we express negative emotions like sadness, anger, or fear the brain produces stress hormones intensifying the bad feelings. 

There are countless psychology studies exploring the effect of facial manipulation on mood but not many measuring its impact on performance... until 2019 when a guy named Michael Richesin noticed students around UT campus all wearing Tennessee Football shirts with the message "Get Your Game Face On."

Richesin and his colleagues found that certain facial expressions, specifically the Game Face which scientists describe as a “serious, focused, or determined facial expression influence our emotional state, our cognitive performance and psychophysiological responses.

In one experiment, participants were tasked with completing as much of a 100-piece black-and-white mandala puzzle as possible within five minutes. The game face group performed on average 20% better. They also demonstrating better stress recovery compared to the control group.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you can smile your way to happiness when you’re experiencing real pain or that you can smile your way to the finish line of a marathon without training for it.  But you can intentionally communicate a desired state to the brain by the expression you wear on your face.  These are exciting findings because they shed greater light on how the mind and body interact to shape our conscious experiences.

So, go ahead... get your game face on!  What do you have to lose?


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