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Body Language

The Psychology of Body Language

We communicate needs, thoughts, and feeling through body language.

For millions of years, our early ancestors ambled on this planet, effectively navigating a very dangerous world. They did so by communicating effectively with each other their needs, observations, and desires. Impressively, they achieved this through the use of nonverbal communications; more specifically body language. Through chemical scent (musk glands we still possess), physiological changes (flushed face), gestures (pointing hand), facial reactions (quizzical look), symbols (drawings of animals), personal markers (tattoos), even vocal noises (shrieks and grunts - are not verbal communication) they succeeded in a complex environment (Givens, 1998-2005). So much of this remains with us as part of our DNA and paleo (ancient) circuitry within our brains that we still primarily communicate nonverbally, not verbally (Knapp & Hall, 1997, 400-437).

Our limbs, our faces, our eyes, even our hearts are controlled, at all times, by our brain. We do nothing without our brain and when it comes to nonverbal communications, there is interaction between the mind and the corporal self. Because body language is intimately intertwined with our psyche (what is inside the brain) we can use our corporal behavior to decipher what is going on in our heads as far as comfort and discomfort, thoughts, feelings, and intentions. This in essence is what my book, “What Every Body is Saying” is about (Navarro 2008, 1-35; Ratey, 2001, 174).

When we explore nonverbal communications we must do so from the perspective that all communication is governed by the brain. And that the study of the brain, literally “psychology,” must be done with the widest context. That is, from the study of the brain as a complex organic entity: physiologically, emotionally, cognitively, spiritually, and intra-psychically. It is from this perspective that we begin our analysis of the relationship between psychology and nonverbal behavior. As we look at the psychology of nonverbal communications, it is useful to invoke images of a neonate and its immediate needs, in order to realize just how psychology and nonverbal behavior (communication) are interwoven.

A child is born into this world shivering and crying, which prompts the mother to swathe the child in warm clothing to relieve the child from the cold. The child is therefore immediately satisfied of its need for warmth; innately, it has communicated its first message nonverbally (shivering, crying) quite effectively. From this initial need for warmth, we have a window into all future communication and interaction between the brain and the body, each elegantly choreographing and building a repertoire to insure survival through effective communication (Ratey, 2001, 181; Knapp & Hall, 1997, 51).

Crying and shivering are soon followed by thumb sucking, a behavior the child learns while still in the womb. This is a self serving behavior on the part of the brain eager to be tranquil and pacified. The brain, for reasons yet unknown, will engage the physical body (in this case the thumb) in its quest for tranquility, which the body will be more than willing to accommodate in order to maintain homeostasis (Navarro, 2008, 21-49). This action (thumb sucking), will take place thousands of times in the future to release pleasure inducing endorphins (opiate-like substances) in the brain (Panksepp, 1998, 26, 252, 272).

At the same time the child communicates to the observant mother that it is pleasantly occupied in oral bliss. As the child grows, it will develop other adaptive behaviors to pacify himself during stressful situations. Some will be obvious (e.g., gum chewing, pencil biting, lip touching) others not so obvious (e.g., playing with the hair, facial stroking, neck rubbing). And yet, they satisfy the same requirement of the brain; that is, for the body to do something which will stimulate nerves (releasing endorphins) so that the brain can be soothed (Panksepp, 1998, 272).

Progressively, the newborn will seek to find the mother’s nipple by awkwardly moving its head in the direction of the milk glands which it can accurately sense through very sensitive olfactory nerves in its nose. As the child begins to feed, rhythmically sucking the milk from the breast, the hands of the child instinctively press and massage the breast to assist in the process of lactation, as well as generating a sense of comfort and well-being on the part of the mother and the child.

This also begins the process of bonding between mother and child; what is often referred to as proto-socialization (the beginning of social harmony). It is both a physical (corporal) process and a psychological process (Givens, 2005, 121). Both parent and child receive great reward from the intimacy of breast-feeding, for as the child is fed, the mother begins to be rewarded for her efforts: milk is released, relieving pressure which builds within the mammary gland causing the release of oxytocin which soothes the mother as well as the child but more importantly helps them to bond.

Thus, the child begins to communicate its pleasure in being comforted by the mother, while at the same time, the mother begins to observe and decode every nuance of the child’s behavior. This time spent close together will help the mother and child to understand each other and to communicate more effectively. The mother soon learns the various cries (nonverbal communication) of the child reflecting hunger, cold, disgust, sickness, or sadness, essential for the child’s survival and well being. Likewise, the child (within as little as seventy two hours) begins to follow and observe its mother, mimicking facial behaviors, useful for developing facial muscles but more importantly for communicating needs and sentiments (Ratey, 2001, 330). Within days, if not hours of birth, we begin the process of communicating (crying, sighing, smiling,) our needs and sentiments. Eventually the child will be able to communicate more complex observations of the world around him.

As our behaviors are decoded and re-enforced both by parent and child, they each learn to interpersonally communicate more precisely with each other. Eventually, the child will respond to spoken words, even other languages. And yet, how words are spoken and delivered (tone, loudness, speed, sentiment, eye contact, posture) are even more significant than the words themselves (Knapp & Hall, 1997, 400-425; Givens, 2005, 85). The nonverbal component of speech, in essence the psychology of the message, will remain consciously and subconsciously significant to us the rest of our lives. From how words are delivered we will derive comfort, discomfort, or indifference.

From the warm intimacy of interacting with its mother, the child will also develop communication tools for socializing with others. The child, without benefit of a guidebook or directions, comes exquisitely equipped to communicate nonverbally its likes and dislikes. Sensing something it dislikes, the brain, without conscious thought (subconsciously) immediately constricts the pupils and turns the body away (ventral denial) from that which is perceived as negative (Navarro, 2008, 179).

These are very subtle behaviors which are part of our survival mechanism (limbic system). Thus, the brain, through the use of the body, transmits very precisely, its negative feelings and sentiments which family and friends will soon recognize (Knapp & Hall, 1997, 51). For example, when the child’s torso stiffens away from the dinner table and the feet turn towards the nearest exit, the mother will have no problem precisely identifying the culprit (child’s dislike for a particular food) and the message (I won’t eat it). These key discomfort displays reflect what is in the head without having to say one word.

Conversely, when the brain likes something, it will again subconsciously compel the child to communicate those sentiments. So, when the mother enters the child’s room in the early morning and looks in, the child’s eyes will open wide, the pupils dilate, facial muscles will relax (permitting a full smile), and the head will tilt, exposing the vulnerable neck (Givens, 2005, 63, 128). These “comfort” behaviors will be useful in the decades to come in developing and maintaining friends as well as to facilitate courtship, ensuring a new generation to propagate the species.

It is in many ways wonderful that our brain requires us to act physically on its behalf to express sentiments. Anger, sadness, fear, surprise, happiness, and disgust manifest nonverbally, are universally recognized and are essential so that we may be attended to even when we can’t speak (Ekman 1982, 1975, 2003). In fact, our brains are so resourceful that children who are born deaf and grow up together in the absence of adult instruction, will develop their own “sign” language in order to communicate complex thoughts with each other (Ratey, 2001, 262).

This interconnectedness between what is in the head and our nonverbal transmission of those sentiments, is not unique to us. All animals do this, principally to insure survival of the species. But our brains transmit a lot more information nonverbally than just emotions (supra). For example, when the brain is healthy and emotions are in check, the brain makes sure that we look well, healthy, and contented. When emotions or illness in the brain manifest (picture a homeless schizophrenic), our bodies and that of all animals reflect the malady through lack of grooming, poor posture, troubled countenance, or erratic-shunted behavior. All reflected nonverbally, demonstrative of this elegant interconnectedness between our mind and our body language.

From birth to death, our bodies form an important communication link with the brain. Not only for dealing with the immediate needs to maintain life, but also to communicate with the outside world. And while we have developed the unique ability to communicate extraordinarily precisely verbally as a result of our abundantly large brain, we still, after millions of years, communicate primarily nonverbally. Hardly anything transpires in our minds that is not reflected in our nonverbal communications. From emotions, to bodily needs, to dislikes, to illness, to status displays, to intentions, our bodies are exquisitely equipped to communicate on multiple levels. By carefully studying nonverbal behavior we gain great insight into that hidden dimension of our mind’s psychology.

For additional information see the below bibliography, for a more comprehensive bibliography, or follow me on twitter: @navarrotells.

Ekman, Paul. 1982. Emotion in the human face. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Ekman, Paul. 2003. Emotions Revealed: recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Times Books.

Ekman, Paul. 1975. Unmasking the Face. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Ekman, Paul & Maureen O’Sullivan. 1991. Who can catch a liar? American Psychologist, 46, 913-920.

Givens, David G. 2004. The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues. Spokane: Center for Nonverbal Studies (

Givens, David. 1998-2005. Love signals: a practical field guide to the body language of courtship. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Knapp, Mark L. and Judith A. Hall. 1997. Nonverbal communication in human interaction, 3rd. Ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Navarro, Joe. 2008. What Every Body Is Saying. New York: Harper Collins.

Panksepp, Jaak. 1998. Affective neuroscience: the foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Ratey, John J. 2001. A user’s guide to the brain: perception, attention, and the four theaters of the brain. New York: Pantheon Books.

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