When a Smile Doesn't Mean Happy: The Confusing, Unpredictable Brain

Updated: Jun 7, 2020

Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

A smile means good things, right? At least in the United States, a smile generally means "happy" or "friendly." But what about those perplexing situations where someone shows one emotion in his facial expression (like a smile) but he says that he's upset, anxious, or sad. We often interpret the contradiction as deceptive or manipulative. In fact, we tend to believe that the facial expression is "more real" than the verbalized feeling. "You may say one thing, but I can tell you are..." And you know what? Many times we would be right!

But... Nothing is always straight forward. Take the example of autism spectrum disorder. One of the characteristics may be that the individual's nonverbal communication doesn't line up with her verbal communiation. So, someone on the spectrum may say she feels frustrated, but she actually looks excited. She may say she likes her birthday present (and indeed, she really does!), but her face "doesn't look right." Then she has to spend a lot of time reassuring the other person that just because her face apparently doesn't capture her joy, she is really happy with the present.

To make things MORE complicated, there are a handful of identified genetic conditions (and likely many more unidentified) in which a happy disposition is the "behavioral phenotype" (that is, the behavioral results of the genetic code).

1. Williams Syndrome: individuals often display a reduced fear or strangers and excessive friendliness toward others. 

2. Angelman syndrome: individuals often smile and laugh frequently, and have happy, excitable personalities. There is a specific behavioral phenotype characterized by happy demeanor, prominent smiling, non-specific laughing, and general exuberance. 

3. Both Angelman syndrome and Smith-Magenis syndrome individuals show heightened social motivation or "attention seeking" with particular preference for adult social interaction compared to peers. 

SO.... Before we label someone as "attention seeking" or "false" in their emotional interactions, let's broaden our understanding of neurology, biology, and genetics. It's true that the neurotypical individual often aligns nonverbal and verbal communication. This leads to the most effective and clear social exchange. BUT, for some, the difference between the verbal and nonverbal is purely biological, without any false intent or malice.

#autism #lifespanautism

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