Does it take fewer muscles to smile than it does to frown?

January 16, 2004

Dear Cecil:

I've heard from all sorts of places that it takes 43 muscles to frown and only 17 to smile (the numbers vary), but I can tell you from experience that spending half an hour grinning is a lot more tiring than half an hour of not smiling, which is pretty much the same as frowning. Is the whole idea bogus?

I've been hearing this for years. Supposedly it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown; ergo, you should smile. Happiness, it seems, is the lazy person's emotion. Time to put this platitude to rest. I arrived at the following detailed accounting of the relevant muscles with the aid of David H. Song, MD, FACS, plastic surgeon and assistant professor at the University of Chicago Hospitals. Song, among other things, reconstructs faces--in short, he ought to know. My apologies if this list seems obsessive, but we're going to settle this once and for all. Caveat: Deciding which of the 53 facial muscles are important in smiling or frowning is a bit arbitrary--many make only minor contributions, and depending on the intensity of the expression may not be involved at all. I've listed here the ones Song feels are important, as corroborated by other sources.

Muscles involved in a "zygomatic" (i.e., genuine) smile:

Zygomaticus major and minor. These muscles pull up the corners of the mouth. They're bilateral (one set on either side of the face). Total number of muscles: 4.

Orbicularis oculi. One of these muscles encircles each eye and causes crinkling. Total: 2.

Levator labii superioris. Pulls up corner of lip and nose. Bilateral. Total: 2.

Levator anguli oris. Also helps elevate angle of mouth. Bilateral. Total: 2.

Risorius. Pulls corner of mouth to the side. Bilateral. Total: 2. Grand total for smiling: 12.

Principal muscles involved in a frown:

Orbicularis oculi (again). Total: 2.

Platysma. Pulls down lips and wrinkles skin of lower face. Bilateral (though joined at midline). Total: 2.

Corrugator supercilii (bilateral) and procerus (unilateral). Furrow brow. Total: 3.

Orbicularis oris. Encircles mouth; purses lips. Unilateral. Total: 1.

Mentalis. Depresses lower lip. Unilateral. Total: 1.

Depressor anguli oris. Pulls corner of mouth down. Bilateral. Total: 2. Grand total for frowning: 11.

Despite the fact that smiling uses more muscles, Song believes it takes less effort than frowning--people tend to smile more frequently, so the relevant muscles are in better shape. You may feel this conclusion assumes a rosier view of the human condition than the facts warrant, but I defer to the doctor. Incidentally, a superficial, homecoming-queen smile requires little more than the two risorius muscles. So if your goal in expressing emotion is really to minimize effort, go for insincere.

Dear Cecil:

I've heard of this before, but didn't believe it. Now I've seen it for myself, and my skeptical mind needs a good explanation. A lady in front of me at the supermarket swiped her credit card but it didn't work. She tried again, didn't work. The cashier tried, didn't work. So far, everything was proceeding scientifically. Then the cashier says, "My friend who works at a bank taught me this." What's he do? He puts the credit card in a plastic shopping bag, pulls the plastic tight around the card, and swipes it. Now the part I don't get: It worked. --Tim, Newton, Massachusetts

Cecil replies:

At least the cashier's friend didn't tell him to bury the card at a crossroads at midnight. Wacky though the plastic-bag technique seems, several of Cecil's engineering buddies admit they've seen it work. Here's the deal. Standard bank cards use the F2F (Aiken biphase) modulation scheme, in which flux reversals encoded in the . . . eh, too much information. Let's just say that when you swipe the card through the reader, the magnetized particles in its stripe generate a signal with "ticks" in it at intervals that the machine is able to interpret as digital ones or zeros. A scratch or other defect in the magnetic stripe can cause a spike (i.e., brief fluctuation) in the signal that a too-sensitive reader will interpret as a tick, meaning that the encoded data will fail the parity check (the numbers won't add up right) and the card won't work. Wrapping the card in plastic increases the distance between the read head and the magnetic stripe, thus reducing the strength and crispness of the signal and smoothing out anomalous fluctuations. Behold, the card works. Worth a try, anyway--God forbid the clerk should have to punch in the numbers by hand.

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