Interacting with incessantly optimistic people can be one of the most depressing experiences on Earth, if you’re wired that way. Being told to "visualize success" can be good advice if it weren’t rendered meaningless by overuse (or cynicism).
But with a new tool out from a team of graduate students at the University of Tokyo’s School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies, you don’t have to. Researchers have created a mirror of sorts that can alter your facial expressions for you. The result, they believe, can result in a positive or negative shift in your own emotions or behavior.
"This artwork influences your emotional state by reflecting your facial expression as a slightly different one," Shigeo Yoshida, one of the creators of "incendiary reflection," writes on his website. "If one could see his/her face smiling in the mirror, then one unconsciously recognize the changing in mirror as one’s actual body changing, one might also become happier."
"Incendiary reflection" works with a camera to track a person’s facial expressions in real time and a display to show the "deformed" version. The difference is surprisingly subtle and nuanced—watch carefully at around 1:10 in the video below to witness the shift (you can also see the expressions side-by-side at 1:48).
"Do all of your emotions really come from inside?" the researchers ask. According to the facial feedback hypothesis, the idea on which the project is based, the way we structure our faces may impact our emotions, in addition to the other way around. Studies conducted over the last several decades have shown that facial expressions do contribute to the intensity of our emotions—and that faking smiles, for example, can lift moods.
"I’ve never seen anything quite like this," said Tara Kraft, a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas who’s publishing studies (and is finishing her dissertation on) facial feedback theory. "It’s a pretty neat concept. Humans tend to mimic whatever we see in front of us. I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t produce a smile matching it, and that might be the reason it might elevate your mood."
Kraft, who’s currently studying how depression might impact facial feedback, added that the University of Tokyo’s system could potentially have a clinical application in treating the disorder. "We recommend all the time that people put smiling pictures of loved ones around their home so they mimic them," she said. "I don’t know if [this tool would] be powerful enough to influence a whole lot of pathology, but as an adjunct treatment, I think it could make sense," she said.
In addition to bettering your disposition, the University of Tokyo researchers also assert that the tool may be able to manipulate choice preferences. After giving 21 volunteers a scarf and showing an altered image of the volunteers wearing it with a smile, the test subjects were more likely to report that they liked what they were wearing. "Altering mood can definitely alter perception of beauty," Kraft said. Still, the suggestion that this could be applied commercially (like in dressing room mirrors), does seem incredibly manipulative and creepy. If the Tokyo researchers are right, the power of persuasion is truly awesome—especially when it’s derived from your own face.