Psychology & Psychiatry

According to research, thinking deeply about complicated problems resulted in different facial muscle activation patterns.

According to psychological theories, people tend to focus a lot of their mental energy on problems that will reward their efforts. More specifically, they suggest that people should consider whether the benefits of solving a problem outweigh the “cost” in terms of the mental effort required before they start thinking deeply about it.

While many hypothetical works have examined this money-saving advantage compromise and speculated about how people conclude the psychological energy they will contribute to a given issue, investigations into this subject remain scant. This is due, in part, to the lack of established, reliable measures in this anticipatory evaluation process.

A recent study was conducted by Radboud University in the Netherlands and McGill University in Canada on the responses of specific facial muscles when people consider the mental costs and benefits of a complex problem. Their research, which was published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, suggests that this distinct and experimentally elusive decision-making process might be reflected in activity in the corrugator muscle, which is the muscle that controls movements of the eyebrows like frowning.

“However, many daily tasks necessitate the expenditure of mental resources in order to achieve our objectives—for example, we complete our homework in order to improve our grades, we pay our taxes in order to fulfill our civic duties, and we read complex scientific articles in order to learn more about the world around us.”

Sean Devine, one of the researchers who carried out the study, 

“Individuals could do without considering every option, and, to be sure, they try not to apply mental exertion whenever the situation allows,” Sean Devine, one of the scientists who did the review, told Clinical Xpress. “In any case, many everyday undertakings expect us to spend mental assets to achieve our objectives — for instance, we complete our schoolwork to get better grades, we do our charges to satisfy our city obligations, and we read confounded logical articles to get more familiar with our general surroundings.

“The dominant theories in cognitive science propose that we exert mental effort when the costs of effort (i.e., the mental work required to complete a task) are outweighed by its benefits (the rewards that putting in the effort affords) to explain how humans make these effort-related decisions. However, these costs and benefits have remained theoretical and abstract up until this point, and it is unclear how humans perceive them when exerting mental effort.”

In spite of the theoretical predictions made in the past, it is still not clear whether people actually find the high mental costs of complex problems unpleasant and enjoy the potential benefits. Using electrophysiological measures of transient emotions, which they refer to as “affect,” Devine and his colleagues set out to investigate this possibility in an experimental setting.
Estimating influence can be challenging, as it is ordinarily transient and subsequently regularly disperses rapidly. The scientists attempted to notice these transient changes by recording the quick (sub-second) action of two facial muscle bunches known to reflect positive and negative influences, utilizing a method known as facial electromyography (fEMG). The muscles of the zygomaticus and corrugator supercilii were the focus of their particular attention.

Devine explained, “The zygomaticus is a muscle that is responsible for smiling and extends from the cheekbone to the corner of the mouth.” A small group of muscles near the eyes, the corrugator supercilii muscles, are at the end of the eyebrow and are responsible for frowning and negative emotions. We were able to use fEMG to look at how mental effort, like completing difficult mental math for different amounts of bonus money, was accompanied by brief affect fluctuations.

Devine and his colleagues basically required 44 adult participants to complete a challenging mental arithmetic task in exchange for course credit. Using a visual cue (a thermometer filled to various heights), the participants were told how difficult some of the tasks would be before they were completed.

When the participants were given this cue, the researchers used fEMG to record the activity of their two muscle groups of interest. This was the time when the participants would theoretically be participating in the cost-reward task evaluation process as well as solving the math problems. In general, they observed that an expanded mental exertion was related to more prominent action in the corrugator, the muscle responsible for keeping up with or changing the place of the eyebrows.

According to Devine, “interestingly, we also found that corrugator activity was reduced when completing a complex arithmetic problem for the possibility of higher amounts of money.” These outcomes are intriguing on the grounds that they expand the money-saving advantage hypothesis of mental exertion, recommending that one system by which people conclude how much exertion they ought to place into an undertaking is by gauging the quick pessimistic sentiments related to mental exertion against the good sentiments about the potential advantages.”

This team’s most recent study appears to support psychological theories regarding anticipatory evaluation of the mental costs and benefits of dealing with complex problems. Eminently, it likewise presented a promising measure for mental exertion, in particular the fEMG-recorded developments of the corrugator supercilii muscles, which could be before long used to lead further examinations on this subject.

Devine continued, “In this study, we measured fEMG activity while people solved mentally challenging math problems.” We want to know how these facial muscles’ activity can predict people’s explicit choices about effort in the future. For instance, are people more likely to avoid mentally demanding tasks when corrugator activity is high?

More information: Sean Devine et al, More than a feeling: physiological measures of affect index the integration of effort costs and rewards during anticipatory effort evaluation, Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience (2023). DOI: 10.3758/s13415-023-01095-3

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