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Born To Smile: New Evidence That Laughing And Smiling Begin In The Womb

British researchers used in utero video imaging to conclude that babies develop the basic muscle mechanisms for smiling well before they're even born. This would offer evidence that laughter and smiles are inherent to humans, not necessarily only

An 11-week-old baby enjoying a funny moment
An 11-week-old baby enjoying a funny moment
Pierre Kaldy

GENEVA - "It is better to write of laughter than of tears, for laughter is the property of man," French Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais once said. Laughing, it turns out, may even be an inherent human trait, a British research team has concluded after filming babies in the womb.

Nadja Reissland from the University of Durham and her colleagues have shown the gradual appearance of several facial movements beginning in the second trimester that enable the formation of all the elements of laughter around the 30th week of pregnancy. The researchers have just published their findings in the PloS ONE journal.

"It is the first time, to my knowledge, that this technique to measure anatomical movements of facial expressions was applied in utero," says Patrik Vuilleumier, director of Geneva University's Neuroscience Center. "These results showing the appearance of human expressions before birth are both new and very interesting," he adds.

In humans, the first facial movements appear in the 10th week after birth and become more and more complex with time. The researchers used an ultrasound camera to film two babies in their respective mother's uterus. An analysis of the babies' facial movements using American psychologist Paul Ekman's "Facial Action Encoding System" allowed them to characterize the expressions linked to laughing and crying. In the 34th week of pregnancy, more than one month before birth, these two expressions were clearly recognizable.

"The movements of the face were spontaneous and could not have been triggered by the ultrasound because the babies were probably not even aware of it," says Nadja Reissland. "In order to exclude any possibility of external influence, we decided to take this approach rather than studying pre-term babies."

The smile observed by researchers was therefore not a reflexive response mimicking a human, which appears very quickly once the baby's born, but rather the manifestation of an independent action.

Fleeting muscle, lasting expressions

The results did not come as a surprise for Rui Diogo, a specialist in facial muscles in the anthropology department at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "Believing that muscles form only to serve well after birth, for example in society, is a myth," he says. "The proof is that there is at least one muscle in the baby's face that disappears later." Its fleeting appearance, argues Diogo, is linked to a necessary rite of passage in the formation of a baby's face, a brief nod to a step in our evolutionary past.

What is laughter then? What purpose does it serve? Technically speaking, it is one of the numerous facial expressions that distinguish superior primates. And yet laughter is less noticeable among orangutans and chimpanzees, even though they possess 23 pairs of facial muscles, the same as humans - with the exception of one small muscle.

If humans, therefore, produce a more varied combination of expressions, the explanation must be found somewhere in the nervous system. The expression of a smile indeed remains the essence of man according to Diogo because, among the six pairs of muscles that produce a smile, that of the risorius, which pulls the corner of the mouth outwards, is specific to human beings.

Other indicators suggest that the smile is "pre-programmed" in humans. "With certain forms of brain damage, a smile can occur without reason, and this type of spasmodic smile appears as more of a reflex than a social signal of emotion," says Vuilleumier. A smile is also an expression of universal joy, one found in all human cultures, as Paul Ekman has shown.

In his work "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals' published in 1872, Charles Darwin noted that a blind and deaf person could have a normal smile, proof that it is not a product of learning. He also observed in his first child "that he can understand a smile and take pleasure in seeing one even at an age where he is too young to be able to learn it."

Does the standard movement of a smile correspond with a positive emotion? "The question remains actively debated because it is difficult to evaluate the emotions that can be felt at this age," says Patrik Vuillemier. "We are in the presence of a pre-programmed muscular behavior of which the use will then be largely a product of the culture and context."

Such is also the opinion of Nadja Reissland, who stops short of assigning effects or emotions to a fetus. "The debate is about knowing in which month the baby begins to smile in order to communicate with the people around him, mainly the mother," she says.

This does not necessarily mean a smile is useless for a newborn. Like crying, it is a primary way of establishing a link with one's surroundings and could be a vital element retained by evolution so that a baby can form attachments with those around him or her.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Worldcrunch

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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