Non Verbal Communication

This chapter serves as a brief introduction to the main scientific theories and academic researchers involved in the study of non-verbal communication.

There are two main schools of thought that govern all fields of modern science: the naturalistic approach and the constructivist approach, which can both take on several forms.


The naturalistic or classical approaches

In this paradigm, emotions as well as how they are expressed are understood as universal objects. They are measurable and can be studied as existing events in their own right. They are thought to be invariable no matter the culture in which they are studied. They are innate and universally identical in their expression and meaning.


The main theories and academic researchers within the naturalistic or classical school of non-verbal communication are:
In the 19th century, C. Darwin and A. Charma are the first to declare gestures and facial expressions as subjects of academic importance with their own particular meaning. 

C. Darwin defined and described primary emotions in his theory of evolution. According to him, emotional expression is identifiable and can sometimes be the same for man and animal.

P. Ekman, academic researcher and psychologist, has developed the “FACS” method to identify emotions in adherence with the evolutionary theory. According to him, emotions are universal and determined by biology. FACS is an ethogram focusing on facial expressions. Although it has provoked much debate within the constructivist schools of anthropology and social psychology, his theories are very popular and have been adapted to television shows such as « Lie to me ».


The constructivist approaches

Constructivist theory is based on the idea that our perception of the world and reality are the result of interaction between the human mind and its environment. According to this school of thought, reality is perceived and therefore not objective. Cognition, emotion, and non-verbal communication are a product of culture. The constructivist approach is no less measurable than the classical approach. It adds an extra dimension by requiring one to consider the context in order to understand the motivations and intentions that are expressed in verbal and non-verbal attitudes.


R. Birdwhistell and Kinesics: from 1950 onwards, he donated his time to demonstrating the importance of itching and body movements as elements of their own particular language. These « Kinemes » are the equivalent of words for spoken languages. It is the first research to interpret movement in general as a true vector of communication: a language.


Edward Hall (1914-2009), demonstrates that different types of cultural contexts shape communication. His research focused on the notions of time and space in human communication and created the fundamental notion of proxemy upon which the Biosystemics method in non-verbal behaviour analysis is based.

Paul Watzlawick (1921-2007), psychologist and human communication theorist demonstrates the effect of retroaction or feedback within the context of interpersonal interaction. In order to understand oneself, it is imperative to understand others and vice versa. He defined and invented the notion of “Pragmatics of communication”, alongside Bateson.


G. Bateson (1904-1980) and the Palo Alto group: he gathered a group of theorists and multidisciplinary academics in the fifties. Going against the naturalistic approach, this school of thought successfully imposed the notion that communication (verbal and non-verbal) is a system. According to them, gesture is not independent from the context in which it is produced. This is the systemic approach. It later led to the concept of “double bind” in psychiatry which is widely criticised by clinical psychology. The group lost popularity during twenty years before regaining momentum with the neuromimetic concept and new cognitive models produced by an associated school of thought who rehabilitated the Palo Alto ideas regarding embodied cognition


Cognitive neuroscience and embodied cognition

The last twenty years have led to many discoveries regarding the mechanisms that determine cognition. Neurosciences and neuromimetics, as well as new technology (EEG, functional MRI, PET scanner, etc.) have disproved beliefs carried within the paradigms of naturalistic classical interpretation. It is now believed that thought, conscious or not, starts in the body. This is called embodied cognition.

F. Varela (1946-2001), neurobiologist, and his concept of enactivism provide without any doubt the most pertinent summary of all these theories. According to him, every living being looks for balance within its environment (autopoiesis). Thus, behaviour emerges or results from a recursive process between perception (sensory organs), action (movement) and environment (in a broad sense) in which the being finds itself. The attitude of an individual is guided by the principle of autopoeisis which is understood by the relationship between the subject and the means it disposes of (perception/action) in its environment.

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