by Stephanie Pappas
Around the human ear are tiny, weak muscles that once would have let evolutionary ancestors pivot their ears to and fro. Today, the muscles aren’t capable of moving much — but their reflex action still exists.
These muscles are vestigial, meaning they’re remnants of evolution that once had a purpose but no longer do. However, humans may be able to repurpose these useless muscles for their own uses, according to Steven Hackley, a psychologist at the University of Missouri and author of a new review of research on the forgotten muscles in the journal Psychophysiology. For one, these muscles activate in response to positive emotions, for reasons nobody truly understands. This odd fact creates a handy tool for psychologists seeking an objective way to measure emotion.
And then there are the educational implications: This muscle reflex is new evidence against the notion of creationism or intelligent design, Hackley said.
“According to intelligent design and creationism, our body was designed by a being with perfect intelligence,” he said. “If that were the case, why would he put circuits in our brains that don’t work? Why would you put circuits in our brain which are useful for lemurs that are useless for humans?”
Another question: Why study these useless muscles at all?
The use of tiny muscle responses to study emotions goes way back, Hackley said. Researchers have found that people have an elevated “startle” response — measured by the twitching of muscles below the eye — when they’re experiencing a negative mood rather than a positive mood. This makes sense, he said, if you think about watching a horror movie late at night and hearing a sudden crash from outside. You’re likely to be far more spooked than if you’d been watching a romantic comedy.
About a decade ago, psychologists tried to find this same response in the vestigial auricularis posterior muscle, which sits right behind the ear and attaches at the ear’s base. Unexpectedly, the auricularis posterior doesn’t respond more strongly when a person is in a bad mood; instead, its response is strongest when people are at their happiest.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Hackley said. “There’s nothing intuitive about it.”
Even in people capable of wiggling their ears, the auricularis posterior reflex is too weak to actually move the ear. At first, Hackley said, researchers thought this muscle’s engagement during happiness had to do with nursing: Perhaps some ancestor’s infants learned to pull their ears back and out of the way while suckling, thus associating the muscle movement with the pleasure of food.
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