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I Have No Wrinkles And I Must Scream

\nBoing Boing's Mark Frauenfelder on the potential sci-fi horrors of Botox

I enjoy studying my five-year-old daughter's facial expressions, because they're such immediate and sensitive indicators of her emotional state. This morning, when I told Jane there was a stack of hot pancakes on the table, her face lit up with glee. In the afternoon, when she found out her older sister had given our pet chickens names without first consulting her, a dark cloud of anger and disappointment crossed her face. (She got over it in forty-five seconds.)It goes without saying that our internal emotional states drive our outward behavior and emotional expressions. What's not as obvious is that the path runs in both directions - that is, our actions and facial expressions tell us how to feel, just as our emotions tell us how to act. This effect is known as the facial feedback hypothesis. Charles Darwin, who wrote The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872, understood that an action can cause the experience of a feeling. As William James said of the phenomenon: "We don't run because we are scared; we are scared because we run."This well-known but little-understood quirk of animal behavior showed up in a recent Discover magazine article (on Boing Boing here) about a study conducted by researcher Bernhard Haslinger at the Technical University of Munich. Haslinger injected a substance similar to Botox into the faces of 19 women, temporarily paralyzing their facial muscles. He then showed the frozen-faced women (and a control group of non-injected women) photographs of sad or angry faces. Haslinger asked both groups of women to imitate the facial expressions, and he measured the activity in their amygdalas, the emotional control center of the brain. It turned out the injected women's amygdalas showed less activity when asked to make angry faces than the control group's did. In other words, the control group became angry when they made an angry face, but the frozen-faced women did not become angry when they tried to make an angry face, because they were unable to move their facial muscles to form the expression of anger.This experiment is a laboratory-controlled subset of a much larger, unmonitored experiment being conducted around the world on millions of people (overwhelmingly women) who receive Botox injections to erase frown lines. The June 2008 Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology ran an essay titled "Botulinum toxin and the facial feedback hypothesis: can looking better make you feel happier?" in which the authors (plastic surgeons at Northwestern University in Chicago) "hypothesize that the injection of botulinum toxin for upper face dynamic creases might induce positive emotional states by reducing the ability to frown and create other negative facial expressions." They wrote that botulinum toxin injections "may curtail the appearance of negative emotions, most notably anger, but also fear and sadness."

At first blush, that doesn't sound like a bad deal-one Botox session can get rid of wrinkles and anger, sadness, and fear. What's not to like?The problem is that Botox prevents people from responding with appropriate anger to things that aren't good for them. Facial paralysis blocks one of our most important and primal forms of communication. It would have been science-fictionally horrific to see my five-year-old respond with a blank expression to her sister's taunt about naming our chickens. It brings to mind the title of Harlan Ellison's 1967 short story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," in which a malevolent computer turns a person into a formless blob who wants to scream in agony but is unable to because he has no mouth.The double whammy of Botox brings to mind another science fiction thriller: the 1975 movie The Stepford Wives (based on Ira Levin's 1972 novel of the same title) in which housewives are replaced by smooth-skinned, blank-faced, docile robots who accept any insult, order, or humiliation with pleasant compliance.The unrealistic quest for physical perfection that drives people to Botox is similar to the equally unrealistic quest for a life free of negative emotions. It looks like Botox may actually grant people both, and, in the process, leave them greatly impoverished.Mark Frauenfelder is the editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine and the founder of Boing Boing. He is currently writing a book on the do-it-yourself movement for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin.Image of the character Joanna's robot duplicate from the 1975 film The Stepford Wives.

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