Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Feeling How We Act (Not Vice Versa)

In Malcolm Gladwell’s NY Times best-seller Blink!, he relates the story of psychologists Paul Eckman and Wallace Friesen, who spent 7 years in an exhaustive study of the psychophysiology of facial expression. (Sure, it’s not something you or I would do, but remember that these are scientists and not normal people.) We know that our faces reflect our emotions. It happens in more detail than we are aware, and some people have better natural aptitude in reading the faces of others; but these skills can be studied and learned.

Eckman and Friesen isolated each facial muscle and studied how each muscle reacted both by itself and in combination with other facial muscles in response to changes in the emotional state. They spent hours and hours observing each other and trying to consciously control their own facial muscle movements. The result of the study is a 500 page scientific paper outlining something called the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a valuable tool for psychological evaluation. In the course of the study, they encountered a phenomenon that has huge implications.

During the time when they were studying the facial expressions associated with anger and distress, they found themselves feeling absolutely horrible following their … um … expression sessions. So they began to monitor their body reactions during the studies as well and discovered that simply making the facial expressions associated with certain emotions caused the autonomic nervous system to respond as if the emotion itself were really present, not just the facial expression. In short, making angry faces actually made them angry. Making sad faces actually made them sad. Making happy faces actually made them happy. Actions produced feelings.

It got me to thinking: several weeks ago I shared a quote from theologian Eugene Peterson that concludes that worship is more about acting ourselves into a new way of feeling than it is about feeling ourselves into a new way of acting. Far too many of us enter a worship service with an agenda that places a burden on those who are leading to make us feel worshipful. If that agenda is not met (whether reasonable or not), then we find it hard to worship and easy to blame those who failed to meet said agenda: They interfered with MY worship. However, if we come into the worship service with a heart that is already determined to behave worshipfully regardless the circumstances, we will almost certainly find the experience to be worshipful. We often find what we expect to find. The mindset with which we approach the corporate worship gathering has a profound impact on our experience in that gathering.

That’s enough to think about for now. The peace of Christ to you.


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