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Embodied Nonverbal Aspects of Communication

By: Richard Boyd Copyright © 2022 September 5, 2015 no comments

Embodied Nonverbal Aspects of Communication

Its important to note that this article was written from the body-mind psychotherapy perspective. As we go throughout our daily life we spend considerable time and energy in communication with others. Most of us can think of the conscious verbal aspects of communication, and how the digital forms of communication are encroaching on our time and choice in the way in which we communicate.

Underlying all these forms of communication are the subconscious non-verbal aspects of communication which are dynamically present moment-to-moment in expressing some part of our reality. Our body and mind share through mirroring between child to adult, adult to child, child to child, and adult to adult, an intersubjective language on nonverbal communication.

The neuroscience-based research shows that there are two distinct vehicles of embodied non-verbal communications – they being “motor images” or embodied gestures, and also the feelings in each one of us, and how they express in an embodied way to another.

The apparent two-fold way in which we communicate and enact cultural learning also shapes our character. A person may become more developed in one of these two modes of interpretation and communication and so then remain underdeveloped in the other less dominant mode.

This process starts as soon as we are born, and may indeed be also a dynamic at play in the womb. It is a critical process whereby a child learns what other people know via a dynamic mirroring and sympathetic exchange of actions and their emotional qualities.

One of the pioneers of childhood attachment theory was John Bowlby whose studies of monkey attachment behaviours indicated that early body contact between the mother and child can mediate the development of appropriate social behaviours. Likewise, the disorganised or lack of contact can result in child stress and later pathological behaviours in the grown adult.

Further research has found that infants have hardwired emotional expressions and reactions designed to elicit maternal care and protection by the parents and in particular the mother. These are known as “emotions of attachment”.

Still another class of emotions are designed to be relational and to promote the sharing of experiences and actions, or which give an evaluation of discovered objects and a learnt response. These are called “emotions of companionship”.

Together they assist in the co-operation in engaging in shared activity and interests with others that foment tribal groupings and cultural learning. There will exist a joint affect and cognition of an intersubjective basis, and which regulates the infants own developing consciousness and experience.

The contact between mother and baby has a deeper symbiosis than many understand. Early brain development is considered by researchers such as Alan Schore and Colin Trevarthen to be influenced by the breastfeeding process, the mother-child gaze during breastfeeding, and in turn, the mother too has neural and embodied responses that facilitate breastfeeding and nurturance towards the infant.

The infant regulates its breathing from the mother breathing, its heartbeat to the mother, and is distressed or soothed based on the tonal intonation of the mother’s voice and sounds. The existence of “mirror neurons” in adults also shows the application in infants and children.

Here the infant learns to imitate, to associate which emotion belongs to another’s action or gestures, and to develop verbal and non-verbal language capabilities. Adults also use this subconscious system to assess others and “make their mind up” about another person in seconds, and then to project emotional conclusions onto that person as if it is the emotion they are witnessing.

These subconscious and embodied communication processes also may shape the child’s character. These processes inform what we learn to move toward and move away from, and how relational and emotional we are resourced up to be in later life.

Any issues or threats encountered as a result of experiences will start the child down the road of developing embodied defences as well as potentially interrupting the developing character of the child in terms of how adaptive and developed are the emotional and relational powers of the self. The child may over-compensate with self-seeking behaviours or have trouble with mirroring others and developing sympathetic emotions to those experiences.

The child may become overly or under emotional. They may attach the wrong emotional responses to gestures or under trauma lose auto-regulation of cognitive and emotional aspects of self.

The person may gravitate toward digital interactions rather than face to face interactions. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has released data that shows that Australians that the average weekday time devoted to “social and community interaction” has fallen from 92 minutes to 36 minutes for women since 1992 up to 2013. For men, it was a fall from 73 minutes to 28 minutes in the same period.

It is true that time management and work-life are having an impact here, but what is also true is that the time spent on mobile digital devices such as smartphones and tablets is replacing face-to-face social human connection time. Neuroscientists are ringing alarm bells that this pattern may hasten a generation of socially retarded adults who have lost the ability to socialise, to form relationships, to learn, and may bring on cognitive decline and early-onset Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The digital version of communication not only does not trigger the important mirror neuron process in communication sessions, it means that the meaning-making part of the brain may ascribe meaning that does not exist to digital communication such as emails, leading to misinterpretation and conflict. The hormonal release of endorphins that promotes bonding and friendship also goes missing in digital forms of communication, as verbal intonation and visual action tendencies cannot be found as we receive their communication.

We are heading into uncharted waters when it comes to the neuro-physical and neuro-psychological impact of technology on our social and relational aspects of self. What we do know is that infancy is a critical time in the developmental journey towards a healthy adult self and shapes whatever ability we have to communicate, socialise and have relationships.

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