Researchers this week created a minor Internet sensation when they published a picture from the Hubble Space Telescope that seemed to show the universe smiling at us. While there are many space pictures that are beautiful and have symbolic meaning (such as the pale blue dot or the pillars of creation), this galactic smile image seems to say something more to us.
That’s because the human brain is built to recognize faces, especially smiles. The recognition of the smile in this picture reminds us how important our own smiles are.
The appearance of the smiley face in this image is striking, but it’s something of a coincidence–as are many of the smiles we see in the world around us.
The image of galaxy cluster SDSS J1038+4849 shows two large galaxies–clusters of billions of stars–that look like bright eyes. Around the eyes are lines that seem to make a circle around the “face” and the curve of a smile. These lines are caused by a special effect of general relativity, known as an “Einstein ring,” in which the gravity of objects in the foreground bends the light coming from objects behind them to create the appearance of arcs or even full circles.
But the physical phenomenon is only part of the story. The other part happens in our brains, where we take the circles and arcs and turn them into a smile. This phenomenon, known as face pareidolia, occurs because our brains are built to recognize smiles.
This was recently shown by researchers at the University of Toronto, who looked at the neurological aspects of the phenomenon. They found that people who see faces in inanimate objects–they point to people who see Jesus and other religious figures’ faces in toast–are actually getting stimulus in the right fusiform face area (rFFA), a region specifically designed for facial recognition (though, some say, it’s also designed to process other familiar objects). It turns out this region is always looking for faces and trying to recognize the emotion on those faces. And that it responds powerfully when it encounters one.
People who smile more live longer. This was demonstrated with a couple of powerful studies–one that looked at baseball cards depicting players in their rookie years and one looking at college yearbook photos. Both studies showed that the people who smiled most lived the longest. Smiling is proof against depression, and we don’t just smile because we’re happy, we’re also happy because we smile.
So it’s troubling when a person doesn’t smile, either because they can’t or because they don’t want to show off teeth that are worn, damaged, or otherwise unattractive. Cosmetic dentistry isn’t just about prettifying your teeth: it’s about restoring your smile–and enriching your life.