The advantage of being in my own think tank of one is that I can be like a frog jumping from lily pad to lily pad, following my own fly, landing when and where I want to, devouring information without having to answer to anyone else.  This is why I can follow my last post on pathological liars with this one on smiles!

I am still hopping around in the same pond I was in yesterday as I search for information about how my mother’s abusive Borderline brain gave me a torturous, miserable childhood.  I am still trying to understand how what happened to her in her own abusive childhood gave her such an awful brain.  Today I just landed on a different lily pad.


I am back for the moment with Dr. Dacher Keltner’s 2009 book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, having landed on his chapter on smiles.

It turns out that of the vast number of kinds of smiles humans produce, there really is only one authentic, genuine real one and a whole lot of fakes.  In the field of research that Keltner belongs to, scientists have discovered the facial-muscle vocabulary of all human emotion expressed by the face.  Smiling has a language.

Keltner describes how the genuine smile originates in the left anterior frontal lobe, a region whose activity is connected to positive emotional experience.  All the phony impostor, fake smiles originate in the right anterior frontal lobe.  We can tell the difference and respond accordingly from nearly the time we are born.  Infants are the first smile detection quality experts.

There are two very specific facial muscles involved in a real, genuine left-brain smile display:  the zygomatic major muscle and the orbicularis oculi.  The smile these two muscles combine to create by their movement has been named, according to Keltner,

“…in honor of the French neuroanatomist Guilluame Benjamin Amand Duchenne (1806-1875), who first discovered the visible traces of the activity of orbicularis occuli.  Smiles that do not involve the activity of the happiness muscle, the orbicularis oculi, are sensibly known as non-Duchenne or non-D smiles.”  (page 105)

“When a ten-month-old is approached by his or her mother, the face lights up with the D smile; when a stranger approaches, the same infant greets the approaching adult with a wary non-D smile.”  (page 106)

So, we have been able to tell the difference between a real D smile and a fake non-D smile from our first days as breathing creatures.  I’ve just never thought about the difference in words before today.  The D smile involves

“…the activity of the happiness muscle, the orbicularis oculi.  This muscle surrounds the eyes and when contracted leads to the raising of the cheek, the pouching of the lower eyelid, and the appearance of those dreaded crow’s feet – the most visible sign of happiness – which the Botox industry is trying to wipe out of the vocabulary of human expression.”  (page 105)

“Duchenne smiles differ morphologically in many ways from the many other smiles that do not involve the action of the orbicularis oculi muscle.  They tend to last between one and five seconds, and the lip corners tend to be raised to equal degrees on both sides of the face.  Smiles missing the action of the orbicularis oculi and likely masking negative states can be on the face for very brief periods (250 milliseconds [1/4 of a second]) or very long periods (a lifetime of polite smiling…).”  (pages 105-106)

“And importantly, several studies have found that Duchenne and non-Duchenne smiles, brief two- to three-second displays differing only in the activation of the orbicularis oculi muscle, map onto entirely different emotional experiences.”  (pages 106-107)

In other words, these two kinds of smiles are connected to entirely different sides of the brain and their corresponding emotional centers:  The D smile to the happiness center on the left side, the fake non-D smiles on the right, negative emotional side of the brain.  The D smile “accompanies high spirits and goodwill” while the non-D smile “reflects the attempt to mask some underlying negative state.”  (page 108)


I can easily see how these two kinds of smiles communicate to all of us and especially to tiny infants in their earliest brain formation stages, the state of the environment.  A genuine D smile signals through happiness states of safe and secure attachment and at least – at that instant – life in a benign, benevolent world.  (It is really an ‘approach’ signal.)

The non-D smile communicates something else entirely.  Our sophisticated emotional-social brains are genetically programmed to read these extremely rapid emotional signals from human faces.  We KNOW when a non-D smile happens, and that it happens from the negative (unsafe, insecure, “something is not quite right in the world”) place inside another person.  (It is really an ‘avoid’ signal.)

The predominant pattern of smiling signals is one of the MAJOR ways our brain is directed in its formation from the time we are born.  Unsafe world equals poverty in the genuine happiness D smile.  Safe world equals lots of signals about what a wonderful, safe and secure place the world is to be in.  The nature of these signals communicate to an infant’s developing body-brain what kind of a world its genetics have to prepare for, and the signals affect the entire body, including the developing nervous and immune system.

The genuine D smile is a flashing green safe-to-GO light.  Then fake smile, masking negative emotional states is some degree of a yellow warning light or a down right flashing unsafe-STOP light.  Our infant developing body-brain builds itself around this kind of information, and we respond to our environment with this body-brain for the rest of our lives.


Keltner misses what I consider a most important fact about what he talks about next in his presentation about how depressed mothers responses to and with their infants.  It is the nature of these kinds of signaling patterns between a mother and her infant that is building her infant’s body-brain from the beginning of her infant’s life.

(It is also extremely important to note here that a vastly understated problem exists of women who negatively affect their infant’s development because of postpartum anxiety that does not appear as ‘typical’ as postpartum depression.  This post also underscores how vitally important it is for any ‘mental health’ treatment a pregnant mother or a mother of a young infant receives to be tied into the needs of her developing infant – such as is now recognized through the field of Infant Mental HealthCalifornia, for example, has highly developed services in this regard funded by tobacco taxes.)

Keltner writes:

“In the 1980s developmental psychologists Ed Tronick, Jeff Cohn, and Tiffany Field became interested in what postpartum depression does to mother-child interactions.  Their studies, and those of other investigators, revealed that postpartum depression mutes the positive emotionality of the mother – she smiles less, she vocalizes with less warm intonation, and her positive emotional repertoire is less contingent upon the actions of her child.  Children of mothers experiencing postpartum depression tend to show complementary behavior – they are more agitated, distressed, and anxious.

“This kind of result is compellingly intuitive.  Any parent or friend who has been up close to this phenomenon, who has been in the living room of a depressed mother whose positive emotion is dampened and disengaged from that of her child, readily knows how essential the exchanges of smiles, coos, touch, play faces, and interested and encouraging eyebrow flashes are to the parent-child dynamic.  Yet from a scientific standpoint, the finding – the mother’s impoverished positive emotional repertoire brings about anxiety and agitation in the child – is plagued by alternative explanations.  Perhaps agitated, fussy infants produce muted positive emotionality and depression in the mother.  Perhaps they both share some genetically based tendency that predisposes their parent-child interactions to lack mutual smiles, coos, touches, and play.  Perhaps their shared emotional condition is the product of deeper structural causes – underpaid work, poverty, alienated or abusive husbands and the like.

“So to study the role of smiling and muted positive emotionality in parent-child interactions, Tronick, Cohn, and Field developed what has come to be known as the still-face paradigm.  This experimental technique is profoundly simple but powerful.  The mother is requested to simply be in the presence of her young infant, say nine months old, but to show no facial expressions whatsoever, and none of the most common of facial expressions for young mothers – smiles.  As the young child navigates around the laboratory environment, approaching toy robots and stuffed elephants and brightly colored objects that make farm animal noises, the child looks to the mother’s face for signals about the environment.  The child seeks information in facial muscle movements about what is safe, fun, and worthy of curious exploration, and what is not, and the mother sits there impassionate, stone-faced, and unresponsive.

“The results are astonishing.  In a smile-impoverished environment, the young child no longer explores the environment, no longer approaches novel toys or play structures; her imagination shuts down.  The child quickly becomes agitated and distressed, often wildly so, arching his or her back and crying out.  The child will often move to the mother and try to provoke her, stir her out of her stupor, with a vocalization or touch or encouraging smile.  And as the child begins to resign herself to the unexpressive condition of the mother, she moves away from the mother, refusing eye contact, and eventually falls into listlessness and torpor.”  (pages 108-110)


The first thing I want to say about this information is that what Keltner is describing is the difference between safe and secure and unsafe and insecure attachment in the world for the playing, exploring, and still very dependent infant.  The only way this infant can determine the ‘condition of the world’ is through signals sent back and forth between it and its mother.

My strong suspicion is that if an infant has been exposed from birth to a mother who is depressed, anxious, dissociated, frightened or who abuses the infant, the entire scenario Keltner is describing would take a different course.  The infant reaction he describes could only happen if an infant had a safe and secure attachment with its mother before they entered the laboratory.

Imagine – taking just these few words and thinking long and deeply about them – how profoundly and negatively a deprived-traumatized infant’s body-brain would have had to develop ALREADY by the age of nine months.  Positive and appropriate safe and secure attachment experiences from birth – or their opposite — would have already had powerful impact on and influence over how the infant’s body-brain had formed itself in critical ways.

It would be a most excellent sign in the experiment described above if the infant DID become agitated, distressed, and tried to engage its mother.  An abused infant would demonstrate all kinds of alterations in its patterns of interaction with its mother.  But see how quickly the infant gives up trying and slumps into helpless, powerless hopelessness even in this brief of an interaction when the mother does not TELL the infant anything it can use to feel safe, secure and attached?


Keltner continues about the social reinforcement of smiles:

“…they are the first incentives toward which young children move, and that parents hungrily seek.  In relevant research, when one-year-old infants sit at the edge of a visual cliff, a glass surface over a precipitous drop, with their mother on the other side, the infant immediately looks to the mother for information about this ambiguous scene, which looks both dangerous and passable.  If the mother shows fear, not a single child will crawl across the glass surface.  If the mother smiles…approximately 80 percent of the infants will eagerly cross the surface, risking potential harm, to be in the warm, reassuring midst of their mother’s smile.”  (page 111)


Long, long before an infant can move itself around in the world at a distance from its earliest caregivers, its brain has been shaped in its development as circuits, pathways and regions have developed themselves in direct response to the kinds of facial signals it has had with its caregivers – or not had as in the case of deprivation of appropriate interactions.

Keltner describes the physiological benefits of both sending and receiving genuine D smiles:

“Two smiles are exchanged within the span of a second or two…  Within the bodies of those individuals…are reciprocally coordinated surges of dopamine and the opiates.  Stress-related cardiovascular response reduces.  A sense of trust and social well-being rises.  The smile….evolved as a neon-light signal of cooperativeness, it became embedded in social exchanges between individuals that give rise to closeness and affiliation.”  (pages 112-113)


A core belief in my thinking is that our entire feel-good biochemical body systems is designed to keep us attached in positive ways to members of our species.  To the degrees that we have lost sight of this, we suffer from all the kinds of ‘addictions’ and social ills known within our species, not the least of which is severe infant-child abuse.

I don’t believe my mother’s earliest life was filled with genuine smiles anymore than mine was.  If it had been, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be sitting here writing these words today.  Had any of my readers own mother been born into a world of genuine smiles they would not be hear reading my words, either.

While the related subjects of humor and laughter await a future post, it is enough today to suggest that by thinking back – mostly within our body – we can track the presence of absence of unresolved trauma in our infant-childhood by the presence or absence of genuine D smiles.  It is most helpful to realize that long before our conscious memory abilities were able to operate, the patterns of smiles versus traumas that we experienced built the very foundation of our brain through which we process our emotions for the rest of our lives.

It is never too late to learn more about the power of genuine happiness to expand the activity of and connections between what happy center neurons we have – even if we don’t have very many.  That left brain happy center is definitely one that shed unused neurons (those not stimulated by happy caregivers in infancy) as it formed in our early lives.  They can never be replaced.  Safe and securely attached people HAVE MORE OF THEM present!

Research on brain plasticity clearly shows that exercising areas of our brain can build more and stronger CONNECTIONS BETWEEN NEURONS and thus expand the operation of brain regions – the happy center included.

But I am a realist.  Those of us who suffered greatly from infant-child abuse, deprivation and trauma and were NOT born to happy mothers or families, simply did not get to build as big a left brain happy center as did those with opposite experiences.  As adults, we actually – in our body – KNOW THIS!

I personally doubt I would be alive if I had not had my brother John, 14 months older than me, who is by character about the dearest person on earth.  He got to keep his happy neurons because my mother was able to love him, as was my father.  By the time I was born he was fully shining.  It is because he lovingly turned the power of his genuine smiling happy neurons upon little tiny (much hated by my turned-psychotic mother) me that any happy neurons were left alive in my brain at all.

Learning how to exercise them so that my happy center neurons can form better connections is one of the most important missions of my life time.


NOTE:  Too much happy stimulation can overstimulate an infant and harm its developing nervous system and brain!  A healthy, happy mother knows instinctively how much is enough and when and how to calm her baby down!  HINT:  When an infant turns its head away and breaks eye contact, LET IT!  It is busy with all the information it can handle (like a busy telephone line).  Do not get right back into its face or you will overwhelm it.  At such times an infant is processing information, building its brain, regulating its own emotional state (self soothing), organizing itself, and calming itself down!  The infant will let you know when it is done and ready to reengage with you.  Another hint:  Men in general are not geared as women are to recognize over stimulating activity with young infants – be careful!

(When such an infant turns its head to the right it is organizing the left side of its brain and vice versa!)



Any parent or friend who has been up close to this phenomenon, who has been in the living room of a depressed mother whose positive emotion is dampened and disengaged from that of her child, readily knows how essential the exchanges of smiles, coos, touch, play faces, and interested and encouraging eyebrow flashes are to the parent-child dynamic.

MOST IMPORTANTLY — They are VITAL!  Please do not forget this – and please do remember to find a way to help any parent and infant you might encounter who is experiencing anxious or depressed interactions so that infant can have a better chance to build a better brain and have a better life – When you see negative, anxious, depressed kinds of infant-caregiver interaction patterns, know they are hurting an infant’s brain development and changing the degree of well-being it will experience for the rest of its life.  FIND A WAY TO EDUCATE – TO POSITIVELY INTERVENE!




  1. Oh, I forgot to include a link to a clip that can help soothe the distress that might get triggered from watching the ‘Still Face Experiment’ clip:

    • My computer wants me to download flashplayer to watch this – I HAD that on here, where did it go? I am so nervous about doing anything to harm this worn little beast, my lifeline!!

  2. Good lord, Linda! You continue to astonish and delight me with your writing, and as I explore all the links you included in your recent “Through the Hands of a Mother,” I feel like a kid in a candy store…who thinks he’s seen all the goodies in the store, and then discovers a whole new room full of treats to savor!

    I too have known the pleasure and freedom of being ‘in my own think tank of one’ – but have also longed to link with other ‘think tanks of one (or more, I don’t care – the more the merrier, I say!)…so discovering your blog was very fortuitous for me! I no longer feel so alone in my studies, as I hop from lily pad to lily pad, in just the way you’ve described.

    I can barely contain the excitement I feel upon discovering your insightful comment – one that hadn’t occurred to me until I read your words:

    “My strong suspicion is that if an infant has been exposed from birth to a mother who is depressed, anxious, dissociated, frightened or who abuses the infant, the entire scenario Keltner is describing would take a different course. The infant reaction he describes could only happen if a child HAD A SAFE AND SECURE ATTACHMENT WITH IT’S MOTHER BEFORE THEY ENTERED THE LABORATORY.” (my capitals)

    After discovering the ‘Still Face Experiment’ on Youtube, I’ve urged everyone I know to spend the 2 minutes & 39 seconds it takes to view this powerful video clip. It so clearly demonstrates how vitally important a mother’s attunement to her baby is, and how totally defenseless infants are to having (what I would call) their biological affect system triggered into negative affects, culminating in intense distress – anguish, and ultimately cascading into total despair – unless the mom is capable of noticing and repairing the damage happening in the baby’s inner experience…

    In the clip I’ve shared widely (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0&feature=related) you can tell instantly that the mom in the experiment is totally attuned to her baby (I think of her as a kind of ‘Uber-Mom’).

    And even though Ed Tronic comments at the end about the tragic nature of babies whose mom isn’t capable of even noticing their baby’s distress…I never thought to wonder if this experiment has ever been carried out with NON-attuned mothers…

    IMHO this entire post is BRILLIANT…but if I comment on every aspect of it, I’ll lose a lot of time that I need to explore that other ‘lily pad’ of BPD studies that awaits my further attention… 😉

    • Delightful! So glad to be even a small part of your delight, Sandy!

      I have been hearing from my daughters up north of the grand laughter parties my 5-month-old grandson is hosting — much of the grand fun being instigated by his 2 3/4 year-old brother! My oldest said that the little one was so full of laughter the other day that just being with him, she laughed so hard her cheeks hurt!

      I am very sad I am missing all of this development, although I was there when the littlest one was 3-6 weeks old, and I saw the flash of his very first smile.

      Oh, I dream of selling BOOKS! My only hope for freedom I need to do some things like travel occasionally north to LAUGH — things I need to improve the quality of my life and therefore my well-being.

      Speaking of which, so good to hear from you today, Sandy!! 🙂

    • Specific to my thought process this morning I would ask, how would that transaction have played itself out in the video if the mother had kept her face exactly that still – but had used her hands to communicate with her infant?

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