The Unknown Power of Smiling

I have some good news for you, we’re actually all born smiling. Using 3D ultrasound technology, we can now see that developing babies appear to smile, even in the womb. When they’re born, babies continue to smile — initially, mostly in their sleep. And even blind babies smile to the sound of the human voice. Smiling is one of the most basic, biologically-uniform expressions of all humans.

In studies conducted in Papua New Guinea, Paul Ekman, the world’s most renowned researcher on facial expressions, found that even members of the Fore tribe, who were completely disconnected from Western culture, and also known for their unusual cannibalism rituals, attributed smiles to descriptions of situations the same way you and I would. So from Papua New Guinea to Hollywood all the way to modern art in Beijing, we smile often, and you smile to express joy and satisfaction.

Now, think about this for a moment, do you smile more than twenty times a day? Research has shown that more than a third of us smile more than twenty times a day, whereas less than fourteen percent of us smile less than five. In fact, those with the most amazing superpowers are actually children, who smile as many as four hundred times per day.

Have you ever wondered why being around children who smile so frequently makes you smile very often? A recent study at Uppsala University in Sweden found that it’s very difficult to frown when looking at someone who smiles. Well, why is that ? Because smiling is evolutionarily contagious, and it suppresses the control we usually have on our facial muscles. Mimicking a smile and experiencing it physically help us understand whether our smile is fake or real, so we can understand the emotional state of the smiler.


In a recent mimicking study at the University of Clermont-Ferrand in France, subjects were asked to determine whether a smile was real or fake while holding a pencil in their mouth to repress smiling muscles.Without the pencil, subjects were excellent judges, but with the pencil in their mouth — when they could not mimic the smile they saw — their judgment was impaired.

In addition to theorizing on evolution in “The Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin also wrote the facial feedback response theory. His theory states that the act of smiling itself actually makes us feel better — rather than smiling being merely a result of feeling good. In his study, Darwin actually cited a French neurologist, Guillaume Duchenne, who used electric jolts to facial muscles to induce and stimulate smiles. Please, don’t try this at home.

In a related German study, researchers used fMRI imaging to measure brain activity before and after injecting Botox to suppress smiling muscles. The finding supported Darwin’s theory by showing that facial feedbackmodifies the neural processing of emotional content in the brain in a way that helps us feel better when we smile. Smiling stimulates our brain reward mechanism in a way that even chocolate — a well-regarded pleasure inducer — cannot match.

Also, unlike lots of chocolate, lots of smiling can actually make you healthier. Smiling can help reduce the level of stress-enhancing hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine, increase the level of mood-enhancing hormones like endorphin and reduce overall blood pressure.

And if that’s not enough, smiling can actually make you look good in the eyes of others. A recent study at Penn State University found that when you smile, you don’t only appear to be more likable and courteous, but you actually appear to be more competent.

So whenever you want to look great and competent, reduce your stress, or feel as if you just had a whole stack of high-quality chocolate — without incurring the caloric cost — or whenever you want to tap into a superpower that will help you and everyone around you live a longer, healthier, happier life, smile.

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Neuroscience Study Uncovers New Player Against Obesity And Daibetes

Preventing weight gain, obesity, and ultimately diabetes could be as simple as keeping a nuclear receptor from being activated in a small part of the brain, according to a new study by Yale School of Medicine researchers.

When the researchers blocked the effects of the nuclear receptor PPARgamma in a small number of brain cells in mice, the animals ate less and became resistant to a high-fat diet. Even though the animals are fat and sugar, they didn’t gain weight, while the control rats – those who didn’t have their PPARgamma blocked – did. Therefore, according to Sabrina Diano, professor at Yale School of Medicine, the PPARgamma receptor in neurons that produce POMC could control responses to a high-fat diet without resulting in obesity.

During the study, transgenic mice were genetically engineered to delete the PPARgamma receptor from the POMC neurons. These neurons are found in the hypothalamus and regulate food intake. They are the neurons that when activated make you feel full and curb appetite. Also, the researchers wanted to see if they could prevent the obesity associated with a high-fat, high-sugar diet by studying PPARgamma which regulates the activation of these neurons.

When PPAEgamma is blocked is the hypothalamic cells, an increased level of free radical formation in POMC neurons was observed. These findings also have key implications in diabetes. PPARgamma is a target of thiazolidinedione (TZD), a class of drugs used to treat type 2 diabetes. They lower blood-glucose levels, however, patients gain weight on these medications.

This study means that the increased weight gain in diabetic patients treated with TZD could be due to the effect of this drug in the brain, therefore, targeting peripheral PPARgamma to treat type 2 diabetes should be done by developing TZD compounds that can’t penetrate the brain.

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But First, Coffee

Have you ever realized that there are few Starbucks ads on billboards, in a newspaper or on posters in places where you can expect to see advertisements for most other establishments, like McDonald’s?  The Starbucks Corporation and its successful marketing strategies are definitely something that should learn about. In this article, we’re going to try and understand what marketing techniques Starbucks uses to reach out and attract millions of people worldwide.


Starbucks wanted to create an attractive and comfortable space perfect to be the place between work and home. Indeed, the doors of the coffee shop chain are opened not only to offer coffees, but also to create a powerful sensorial experience. In other words, as well as coffee, the Starbucks’ marketing strategy can be experienced with the five senses.

Let’s start with smells. They stimulate certain areas of the brain responsible for creating emotions and memories. The human nose can identify and recall as many as 10,000 scents and as much as 75 percent of our emotions are generated by what we smell. Using scent, then, to enhance a brand is nothing to sniff at. When selling a home, we are encouraged to bake cookies just before an open house or light scented candles to generate positive feelings from prospective buyers. Starbucks certainly understands the olfactory benefit of scent – “an atmosphere really special, the coffee smell, it has a certain something that makes you feel comfortable, relaxed.” The smell of coffee is not accidental, it comes from fresheners placed strategically to ‘invite’ us to fancy a coffee in a very subtle way.

Sound has the power to impact our mood and sway our buying habits. Researchers have found that the pace of background music affects customer perceptions of wait time, spending and turnover in stores and restaurants. In other words, fast music decreases spending in a retail environment, but increases  turnover in restaurants. The Starbucks’ music selection is a key in order to create this atmosphere that invites to relax while you are reading the newspaper, have a chat with your friends or even work with your laptop.

In other words, companies, like Starbucks, that are more concerned with increasing the spend-per-customer ratio, use slower music to create longer dining times, leading to a 29 percent increase in the average bill according to one experiment.

The urge to pick up, touch and test things is huge, and retailers count on that in their display strategies. Our hands are an important link between our brains and the world. In fact, as humans we have more tactile receptors in our little fingers alone than we do on our entire back. These receptors help us explore objects in our surroundings. When we encounter a pleasant touch, the brain releases a hormone called oxytocin, leading to feelings of well-being and calm. In research terms, this sense of touch is referred to as our “haptic sense”. Researchers have found that shoppers who touch a product are more likely to purchase, even as it relates  to impulse buys. They’ve also found, logically, that the ability to touch a product increases our confidence in the item’s quality.

In this case, Starbucks’s merchandising is placed close to the casher area, which allows you to approach to the goods while you are queuing and, of course, to touch them. This opportunity of experiencing the articles is so effective that, even at the risk of being stolen, Starbucks keeps its merchandising ‘close enough to touch’.

We’re glossing over the last two senses with just a few obligatory comments. Sight, of course, is the most common marketing medium. Color, architecture and graphic design theory are all well-studied in the marketing industry and fill countless articles. The very well-known logo of the twin-tailed siren has accomplished its mission to be recognised without the need to include the words ‘Starbucks’ and ‘Coffee’. Also, what definitively catches our eyes are the comfortable sofas that are part of the cosy design of the furniture’s stores and reinforce the concept of a place between home and work.

And taste, while of great importance to edible brands, doesn’t fit well into the multi-sensory branding programs of other products. Yet, have you ever been offered a small piece of brownie just when you have pop into a Starbucks coffee shop?

As we’ve seen, the senses influence our emotions and decision-making. Touch, smell, taste, sound, and the look of a product all play an important role in our perceptions, attitudes and consumption of a product. Understanding those roles provides a valuable advantage in today’s marketplace.

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Sniffing Out Information

Sight, sound, and touch are the senses we are the most aware of. Yet, the more primitive senses of taste and smell are in many ways equally essential to survival. Now, if you spend a few minutes observing dogs meeting in the park or a pet mouse wandering around the living room, you may be reminded of the importance of smell – recognizing food that is palatable, nutritional, and safe.


While olfaction may have evolved as a mechanism for evaluating whether a potential food is edible, it also has come to serve important social and marketing functions. Just think of the endless display of perfumes and colognes that line the first floor of every department store – a coincidence ? I think not. 

Anatomical and lesion studies indicate that the primary olfactory cortex is located in the ventral region of anterior temporal lobe. After compiling the results of imaging studies, it seems that an intimate relationship between smelling and sniffing exists. Indeed, subjects were scanned while they were exposed to either nonodorized, clean air or one of two chemicals, vanillin or decanoix acid. You can all guess that the first smell is of vanilla, but any idea what the latter one is ? Well it’s a chemical that smell like crayons. 

The odor-absent and odor-present conditions alternated every forty seconds and, throughout the entire scanning session, the instruction – “Sniff and respond, is there an odor ?” – was presented every eight seconds. In doing so, the researchers sought to identify the brain areas associated with sniffing or smelling. 

Surprisingly, the results of this study suggest that the primary olfactory cortex might be more part of motor system for olfaction. Yet, upon further study of the primary olfactory cortex in the rat, this phenomena became clear. The studies with the rat have shown that these neurons habituate quickly. Which means that each sniff represents an active sample of the olfactory environment, and that the primary olfactory cortex plays a critical role in determining if a new smell is present. 

The importance of sniffing for olfactory perception is explained by the fact that our ability to smell is continually being modified by changes in the size of the nasal passages. In fact, our nostrils switch back and forth, with one larger that the other for a few hours and then the reverse. Why would our nostril behave this way ? 

Well, one hypothesis is that olfactory perception depends not only on the intensity of the odor but also on the efficiency with which we sample the odor. As a result, the brain is provided with slightly different images of the olfactory environment. Also, asymmetrical representations are the rule in human cognition, perhaps providing a more efficient manner of processing complex information.

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If You Want To Know If She Loves You So, It’s In Her Eyes

Imagine this scenario for a moment. You’re in a restaurant, on your first date, and you’re wondering if this relationship is going anywhere. You’re probably going to see what happens – like the soul singer Betty Everett once proclaimed, “If you want to know if he loves you so, it’s in his kiss“. But, what if you didn’t have to ?

A new study, by Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago High-Performance Electrical NeuroImaging Laboratory, suggests that the difference between love and lust is all in the eyes. In other words, where your date looks at you could indicate whether or not love is on the table.

After setting up an experiment with an eye tracker, Cacippo found that eye patterns would be concentrated on the other persons face if the viewer sees that person as a potential romantic partner. Yet, if the viewer is feeling a sexual desire towards that person, eye patterns will be concentrated on the person’s body. This automatic judgment often occurs in seconds which, as a consequence, produces different gaze patterns. Also, numerous studies have shown that different networks of  brain regions activate when one is feeling love or lust (see here for an example).

“Although little is currently known about the science of love at first sight or how people fall in love, these patterns of response provide the first clues regarding how automatic attentional processes, such as eye gaze, may differentiate feelings of love from feelings of desire toward strangers.”

Stephanie Cacioppo


How to test visual patterns ? 

In this study, two experiments were performed to understand visual patterns in two different emotional and cognitive states. These states are often difficult to distinguish from one another. Have you ever tried to understand what you were feeling when you looked at your date ? It’s difficult, right ? Well it’s even harder to distinguish these different states neurologically.

Cacioppo and her team of researchers asked male and female students from the University of Geneva to view a series of black-and-white photographs of people they had never met. During the first experiment, participants viewed photographs of young, adult heterosexual couples who were looking at each other. In the next, the participants viewed photos of attractive individuals of the opposite sex who were looking directly at them.

Throughout the experiment, participants were in front of a computer and asked to look at multiple blocks of photographs. They had to decide as quickly and precisely as possible whether they perceived feelings of sexual desire or romantic love from the people in the photographs.

Cacioppo’s study found no significant difference in the time it took the participants to detect romantic love or feelings of desire. This shows how quickly the brain can process both feelings of love or lust. Yet, after observing the eye tracking data from both studies, there were visible differences in the eye movements. These differences depended on whether the subjects reported feeling desire or romantic love.

By pooling this data, researchers were able to form a complete map of love and desire in the brain. They found that that two brain structures in particular, the insula and the striatum, are responsible for tracking the progression from sexual desire to love. The insula is a portion of the cerebral cortex folded deep within an area between the temporal lobe and the frontal lobe, while the striatum is located nearby, inside the forebrain.

Love and sexual desire activate different areas of the striatum. The area activated by sexual desire is usually activated by things that are inherently pleasurable, such as sex or food. The area activated by love is involved in the process of conditioning by which things paired with reward or pleasure are given inherent value. That is, as feelings of sexual desire develop into love, they are processed in a different place in the striatum.

“Love is actually a habit that is formed from sexual desire as desire is rewarded. It works the same way in the brain as when people become addicted to drugs.”

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Consumer Neuroscience – Website Design

Neuromarketing is more commonly known is advertising, but did you know it’s also used in web design ? In this case, the goal of neuromarketing is to increase conversion rates and the percentage of visitors who take action by using specific cognitive biases in the design and content of the website.

Researchers have begun to study the way the brain works in response to marketing stimuli. By understanding the consumer’s cognitive and sensory responses, you can fine-tune your web design and encourage conversions.

Now, let’s look at this example for a moment. Out for an evening walk, you nearly step on a snake. It takes your brain only milliseconds to respond to the potential threat, causing you to stop short and take a closer look. By the time you jump back, you realize it’s just a stick. But your primitive brain responded before you could really process what you were looking at and come to a rational decision to just keep walking.

What can we draw out of this example – what have an evening walk, a snake and a branch got in common with websites ? Well, consumers work the exact same way when they click on a website. The job of the primitive brain is to keep us alive, therefore it’s hard-wired to process external stimuli in a certain way. This means that our logical and emotional thinking only kick in when our primitive brain is sure everything is alright. As a consequence, this phenomena, has a fascinating impact on web design.


Is the environment familiar ?

The primitive brain, also know as the reptilian brain, is built for efficiency and therefore looks for familiar patterns. As a result if you come across something that isn’t easily recognizable, you may create an interrupted experience for your visitor as their brain assesses for danger. But how can you resolve this dilemma ? Well, for example, you could add pictures or videos of people, like themselves, smiling so that the customer feels reassured. An other way of keeping your customers primitive brain at ease is to keep your home page consistent.

Am I safe in this environment ?

But what happens if the reptilian brain does notice some changes in the environment ? Well it automatically focuses on them amd forgets everything else. An unexpected element in your web design acts the same way as a suspicious rustling in the bushes did for our ancestors. If you take this into concideration, you might understand why navigation accounts for 60% of your online success, and as much as 80% for mobile sites. Therefore it’s best to stick to a predictable navigation and layout so that the users experience isn’t interrupted.

For example, most people hate pop-ups; they totally interrupt an expected experience. But our eyes are instinctively drawn to them (even if we don’t want to) to make sure they’re not dangerous. If that pop-up offers a truly compelling offer or enriches the online experience, the brain will remember that in its decision-making process.

Can I see the danger ? Is it close ?

Around half of your brain is used to process visual stimuli, and as a result, once you see something you can’t “unsee” it. For example, how many light switches do you have in your home? To answer this, you probably visualized the rooms in your home, instinctively, and come up with an answer. Our visual sense is heavily used to understand our world, which means that we need to focus website designs on great visuals. Whether it’s photos of your product in action, your employees providing services, or your retail location – great photos give customers something to connect with.

Should I act ? Fight or flight ?

Finaly, we shouldn’t forget that our brain needs to sense some urgency in order to act. We’re more motivated by the possibility of loss than of gain, and we like the idea of something we can have right now. This means you need to include a call-to-action on every page as well as a way to act immediately (newsletter, membership sign-up, contact information, etc.). You may have noticed that you lose interest in a website fairly quickly, therefore websites should present actionable items early and often.

Some neuroscience-based web design techniques make huge differences, others are so subtle, they may give only a tiny improvement making them worthwhile only if you have a lot of traffic.

Remember, every customer has a brains. So even if the environment is brain-to-brain or brain-to-computer, keep your customers in mind when you’re marketing a website or a product. And as consumers, we should all be aware of how marketers are taking advantage of our own biases.

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Sensory Marketing – Touch it ! Smell it ! Remember it !

Sensory marketing engages the consumers senses with the purpose of conditioning their shopping decisions. The right situation can trigger a wide range of emotions that can lead the shopper to choose a brand over another.

Studies show that multi-sensory shopping experiences – where two or more senses receive stimulation at the same time – cause the shoppers to stay longer in the stores, buy more products, and develop a stronger engagement with brands.

Today more than ever, it seems that everyone assumes that the determining factor for effectively and successfully reaching the customer depends on how we manage sensory perceptions that the brand or product will cause in people. Which means that when a customer comes in contact with the product, the perceptual machine begins to operate.


This is where our emotional brain plays a key role in making decisions, by choosing an option even before our prefrontal cortex – the conductor – gets time to evaluate the options. In the decision-making process, many factors influence us – our culture and beliefs, our memories of past experiences that we have stored in long term memory, for example.

While most brands focus their attention on developing visual and auditory marketing techniques, such as logos, specific music to play in the stores, television adverts with original jingles or themed colors for their packaging. There are lots of other resources that could be implemented, which aim to stimulate various senses simultaneously and creating a more intense shopping experience for the consumer.

For example, just by spraying a distinctive fragrance in a store, creating packages with different textures or giving their products a characteristic smell, brands and retailers get to see a significant improvement of sales.

The theory behind sensory marketing is all good and well. Let’s now see what this looks like in practice by examining different marketing techniques well renowned companies use to activate your senses.

In the last years, brands have been working hard to develop distinctive sounds both for their products and their packages. For instance, McDonald’s use numerous tactics to sell their products – for this example, we’ll focus on how they sell their fries. During the rush hours of the day – lunch time for example – the company put adverts out that are specifically aimed at those driving a car. One advert for fries features a sound that you could describe as something like a deep fat fryer and the voice over even announces that the smell of fries being cooked will be transferred to your car. By thinking of the sound of the fries cooking and our mental representation of the smell of fries, we are prompted to go and buy some. In this case, we can hardly say the advertising is subliminal yet, the company thinks that subtlety should not be wasted on its customers. Have you ever wondered why there is so much red in their restaurants ? Well, now you know – pay, eat fast and go away quickly.

Now, after thinking about MacDonald’s, you must be getting hungry. Sadly, manufactures know all too well that food is one of our weakest links. Let’s now turn our attention to chocolate, M&M’s to be precise.

You might have noticed, after years of eating them, that M&M’s don’t really smell of chocolate. Yet, when you enter the famous M&M’s World Store in London, you are bombarded by the soothing smell of chocolate. As you look around the store, you notice that every M&M is already prepackaged. So why is there this strong chocolate smell ? Well, who wouldn’t want to feel as though you’re walking into Willy Wonka’s Factory ?

After getting your taste buds working, you may, by now, have understood that scents mess with your rational thoughts and connect with your emotions. Here’s one final example that proves this. Have you ever noticed that when you walk into a Nike Store you immediately go for the most expensive shoes ? Well, you will know understand why.

Essentially, Nike Stores use a mixed flower scent to direct you towards the more expensive shoe designs inside. Studies show that you are willing to spend up to 10€ more on their shoes if they are diffusing flowery scents in the store. Also, the shops are light and often have white walls with black decorations or images in neutral colors, which makes you relaxed enough to make you pay for their shoes.

It is a well known fact that your memory and smells are tied closely together – a scent can really bring back memories and invoke emotions. Nowadays, companies know this all too well and make use of scents and sounds to jolt your brain into liking or enjoying their product.

Therefore if you wish to successfully sell your product make sure to pair either your store or the actual product with a specific scent – if you feel at home in a store, you are more likely to buy.

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