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Barrow Neurologist Confirms the Science Behind a Smile

A new study commissioned and released by Dignity Health ahead of Valentine’s Day has revealed that nearly 90 percent of Americans believe smiling has a direct impact on their physical and mental health. More surprisingly, the survey also found that almost 70 percent of people notice a mood lift after taking a smiling selfie.

Neuropsychologists and neurologists at Barrow Neurological Institute who have studied how the brain controls and regulates emotions believe there is scientific reasoning behind smiling which supports this survey’s findings.

photo of phoenix neurologist suraj muley

Dr. Suraj Muley
Barrow Neurologist

“Through functional MRI studies, we know that when a person sees smiles, areas associated with the brain’s reward system are activated, showing that there is indeed science to a smile,” says Dr. Suraj Muley, a neurologist at Barrow Neurological Institute, which is part of Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

Seeing a smile can also activate mirror neurons in the brain, causing individuals to mimic the action they’re seeing. In fact, 96 percent of people polled in the survey said they smile back at people who smile at them, and 89 percent say it is automatic.

“Scientific research shows there are brain circuits that dynamically control and react to external information and how we ‘feel’ about that information,” says Dr. Muley. “While a smile is a simple gesture, it has a tremendous power to foster human connection without saying a word.”

The survey also found that smiling is known to decrease stress and impact perception. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that smiling makes them feel less stressed, 86 percent of individuals said those who smile are more memorable and more than 90 percent believe those who smile more often are more likeable.

“The brain’s sensory system is very powerful,” says Dr. Muley. “Vision and emotion are very closely tied and we retain these memories and feelings with a strong emotional component.”

Although Dr. Muley specializes in treating patients with neuromuscular diseases such as ALS and MS, he says more and more researchers are studying how positive stimuli, like smiling, also impacts your brain and your emotional state just as strongly.

“A smile can not only impact your day but it can also improve the health, well-being and happiness of yourself and those around you,” says Dr. Muley.

The survey of 1,050 respondents across the U.S. was conducted via Qualtrics.

About Barrow

Since our doors opened as a regional specialty center in 1962, we have grown into one of the premiere destinations in the world for neurology and neurosurgery. Our experienced, highly skilled, and comprehensive team of neurological specialists can provide you with a complete spectrum of care–from diagnosis through outpatient neurorehabilitation–under one roof. Barrow Neurological Institute: Discover. Educate. Heal.