Does seeing a familiar face improve your mood?

It seems obvious that seeing familiar faces should improve one’s mood, but as with any kind of claim, it is always good to use scientific method to examine and support such statements.

A recent study published in April 2019 in PloS ONE1 does just that, examining the affective processing of loved familiar faces and names. According to the paper, the neuroscientific study of love has recently been boosted by the expanding research on face-identity recognition and the authors go on to describe how their study compares the emotional mechanisms activated by loved faces and names along with simultaneously examining fMRI and autonomic measures in their subjects.

fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow. This technique relies on the fact that cerebral blood flow and neuronal activation are coupled. When an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases.

The study combined fMRI and heart rate measurements and showed parallel changes in the autonomic nervous system and the functional brain when participants, using the passive picture-viewing paradigm, viewed loved familiar faces and names compared to unknown neutral faces and names.

The autonomic measure revealed a pattern of heart rate increases, replicating previous findings concerning loved familiar faces and names. The fMRI measures showed higher strength for faces than names, but for both types of stimuli, there are some brain regions that predicted the magnitude of cardiac response. These regions included frontal and temporal structures for faces and names respectively, and the magnitude of brain and autonomic responses to love are correlated.

The results showed accelerative patterns in heart rate, together with brain activations, which were significantly higher for loved people than for unknown people. Significant correlations were found between heart rate and brain activation in frontal areas, for faces, and in temporal areas, for names.

There is obviously quite a bit of scientific technobabble in the study, but the results are in and very clear: When you see photos of loved ones faces and names, your brain lights up and activates correlating to feelings of love and happiness!

So do your mood a favour and download the Faces App today.

1. Vila, J., Morato, C., Lucas, I., Guerra, P., Castro-Laguardia, A. M., & Bobes, M. A. (2019). The affective processing of loved familiar faces and names: Integrating fMRI and heart rate. PloS ONE, 14(4), e0216057.