Body Language –Learnt As Fast As Speech?

Body language is an important means of communication to most species. Critical of course when two creatures meet, but also in general day to day contacts. This is especially true in social species with constant contacts between conspecifics.

Reading other species body language is critically important too. Your dog can read you almost like the proverbial book. It may recognize some words, but it’s your body language and intonation rather than words that is being understood. Or on occasion misunderstood and you may have the scars to prove it.

Human reliance on the spoken word has apparently relegated the reading of each other’s body language to very much a minor role. At least, many of us would claim that if we’re asked. But relying on your “gut instinct” or first impression of a person is gaining some respectability in the literature. We’ve gone along with that by and large even though we used to be told not to.

An interesting question arises as to how fast do we learn to read body language? We learn to speak quite slowly. We learn to read even more slowly. So where does learning to read body fit in?

Much body language is subtle and that must slow down the learning process. Learning to lie in body is rather more difficult than learning to lie in speech. A good actor is someone whose profession is lying very convincingly. Learning the words is the easy part. The expression by intonation, cadence and body action come together to make them convincing.

Mime is a great example of using body language to tell a story and all stories express emotion of various types. In a recent paper, Ross et al in last weeks PLoS ONE used actors and mime to check out the rate of progress in reading body for a group of 121 children and adults (1).

The actors wore tight fitting black suits and mimed to express emotions such as anger, sadness, happiness and fear. No white faces with makeup which might give clues, because reading faces is something babies do very early (as does your dog). To muddy the water more, the actors had reflective markers that were used in low light conditions to give a basic figure structure. Rather like a stick figure if one were to connect the light dots.

The group of participants of 4 to 18-years olds were asked to choose the emotion of the figure in full light and then in the point light outline figures. Then the data was pored over, graphed and pored over some more. At 4 no one was very good at picking up on the emotion expressed by the body language. By 18 they were better. Full light figures were easier to read correctly than point light outlines.

The excitement though is in the rate of learning to read body. The data showed a steep rise to 10-years old and then a slowly improving rise through 18. Full light scores were better, but the change from rapid learning to slowly improving occurred at 10 still. The slow improvement was slightly faster for the point outline figures, but not by much.

So it seems that we can be slower to learn body than to read and that we don’t become competent until our teenage years.


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