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Vol. LXI, No. 15
July 24, 2009

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STEP Forum Interprets Body Language

On the front page...

If you walk into a meeting where there’s a lot of arm-crossing, you’ll sense a problem—some anxiety, at least—in the defensive posture.

Yet nonverbal communication isn’t always easy to read. A recent Staff Training in Extramural Programs (STEP) forum in Natcher Bldg. invited three panelists to explore “Body Language: Let Me Hear Your Body Talk!”

Nonverbal communication includes a wide range of behaviors: use of physical space, timing, movement, facial expression, gesture, posture, touching and eye gaze.


  Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow discusses body language at a recent STEP forum.  
  Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow discusses body language at a recent STEP forum.  

The traditional view, said the University of Chicago’s Dr. Susan Goldin-Meadow, is that body language expresses affect (that is, emotion) and not content, and so “frames the conversation, but is not the conversation itself.”

In fact, she said, research shows that “nonverbal behavior can convey ideas.”

Using video clips of schoolchildren learning arithmetic, Goldin-Meadow compared the verbal and nonverbal components in how the kids learned—or didn’t. By teasing out the distinct effects of gesture and speech, she found that the nonverbal behavior of both students and teachers is crucial to learning.

Children are so sensitive to adults’ gestures that they absorb them readily, even if the information contained in the gestures isn’t true.

For example, while explaining an addition problem on the board, a teacher who made a clumsy gesture inadvertently misled students in how to solve it. Her verbal instructions were clear enough, yet the gesture contradicted her words.

The kids got the problem wrong. It was the teacher’s gesture that stuck.
STEP forum panelists (from l) Dr. John Stern, Dr. Curtis LeBaron and Goldin-Meadow

STEP forum panelists (from l) Dr. John Stern, Dr. Curtis LeBaron and Goldin-Meadow

Because gestures convey substantive information about a speaker’s thoughts, the best teachers learn to interpret them in their students and to master them in their own teaching performance.

Moreover, as a student, “if you gesture, you learn more than if you don’t,” Goldin-Meadow said. “The fact that it’s under the radar potentially makes it important and powerful.”

Focusing on the human face, Washington University’s Dr. John Stern presented the bio-behavioral phenomena of blinking, pupillary movements and saccades (rapid, simultaneous movements of both eyes in the same direction).

Using simulators for air traffic control and flight, Stern examined blink effects on “saccade duration”—that is, the length of these eye movements. Such patterns help us make inferences about cognition, attention and alertness, he said.

Blinking protects our eyes, of course, by keeping them moistened. Adults blink spontaneously at 2- to 10-second intervals, yet beyond that, Stern said, there are marked differences in how individuals respond.

The blinking interval grows longer when we’re taking in important information, as when reading or driving, and especially when we’re on high alert, attending closely to any change in our visual or auditory environments.

“Many accidents attributed to ‘human error’ are occasioned by alertness lapses,” Stern noted.

Studying the blink helps identify these lapses and their precursors. These in turn may “allow for the development of procedures to reduce their likelihood of occurrence.”

Brigham Young University’s Dr. Curtis LeBaron also looked at “big issues through the study of small things” using video-based case studies.

“Observed in the wild [outside the laboratory], gestures tend to resist categorization,” he said. Yet “gestures are conceptual; they are not just feeling and affect.”

In close-ups of surgery in progress, LeBaron showed how even the smallest gestures made by attending physicians were crucial in teaching younger doctors how to operate.

These were not conversational hand-wavings or shrugs, but micro-gestures with sterile instruments in the surgical field.

Nonverbal communication is intrinsic and inescapable. It’s so much a part of us that we may not notice it. Yet “the resident’s success,” said LeBaron, “depended on the subtle, silent and supportive behavior of the expert” in tiny, specific gestures.

As the resident learned to interpret and internalize these expert gestures, they served as “scaffolding at every turn of surgical activity.” The sooner the resident was able to recognize the attending physician’s nonverbal behaviors as cues for action, the more expert the resident showed him- or herself to be.

Something to consider the next time your supervisor asks you to pass the stapler. NIHRecord Icon

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