Nonverbal Cues Carry as Much Information as Words — Especially for Young Children

mom crouching down to smile at child

In presentations, I sometimes ask audience members to participate in an exercise in nonverbal cues that I learned from a psychiatrist known for his work in posttraumatic stress. Everyone splits up into groups of two, with one person telling a story, any story, to the other. When I give the signal, the listener is supposed to look down at the floor while the storyteller continues. At the next signal, a minute or so later, the listener looks up again.

At the end of the exercise, I ask the storytellers how they felt while the listener was looking down. They typically express frustration or even mild panic over feeling tuned out. Many will say that they automatically leaned forward or spoke louder to make themselves heard. Then, when I ask the listeners how they felt, most will admit to feeling some level of guilt or regret for adopting a posture of not listening.

This exercise illustrates how our brain hemispheres work together. Telling a story is predominately a left-brain function, recounting a memory in a linear narrative. Listening to a story relies more on the right side of the brain, which can conjure mental images from the words and read the speaker’s emotions. When the connection between the two breaks, both people struggle. The executive functions of the storyteller’s prefrontal left brain get distracted by emotional processes of the right brain, which is suddenly anxious over the listener’s lack of nonverbal cues. The storyteller suddenly feels insecure.

Listeners experience something similar. Their bodies produce a negative, self-critical state — even when they know they are following directions in a game!

Nonverbal Cues Are Deeply Innate

The exercise also provides a glimpse into the power and importance of nonverbal communication. Humans began to develop spoken language about 100,000 years ago. But we remain better equipped for and heavily reliant on nonverbal cues. We are born with the foundation of the capacity to read others’ emotions, and with the urge to respond in kind. Gazes, facial expressions, hand gestures, shrugs, postures, etc., drive all of our relationships, starting in infancy.

A study published in 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that when infants and adults stare at each other intently, their brain waves sync. Lead researcher Victoria Leong, a psychologist at the University of Cambridge, told the Washington Post that the findings give “new insights into infants’ amazing abilities to connect to, and tune in with, their adult caregivers.”

Think of a three-month-old lifting his head to look around for the first time. Or a ten-month-old letting go of the coffee table and taking her first tentative steps, seeing the happiness and encouragement these acts elicit from adults. With each milestone, the child’s capacity for play expands, building the brain’s joy processes. This feedback loop of joy then strengthens the bonds between baby and caregiver.

Thus, we are hardwired to connect using our faces and reflecting that process through our bodies. There’s a reason that smiles for posed photographs often don’t look convincing. When you experience joy or laughter, it doesn’t just raise the muscles around your mouth; it also crinkles the muscles around your eyes. The whites of our eyes become less visible. It’s the opposite of the widening that occurs when something startles or frightens us.

Feelings Come from Our Bodies

Four to six times as many neuronal processes run from body to brain as run from brain to body. The body tells you what you are feeling, including emotions. This is why our feelings often are evident in our faces. Even when we try to mask this, people who know us well can tell. This is how we communicate: Body to face, and face to body. That then builds the capacity to recognize cues for safety and danger, and to co-regulate our emotions with others’. (In another article, I described the time I watched a conversation nearly escalate into an argument because Botox affected one person’s facial expressions.)

As they grow, children’s emotion-reading skills improve rapidly — but there is a downside.

“Children are like emotional geiger counters,” said E. Mark Cummings, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, in a 2016 Atlantic article. Cummings studies the effects of family conflict on children. He asserts that children attune to parental discord, even when the parents try to hide it. As the article explains:

For many couples, holding onto a grudge — smoldering but not letting a disagreement erupt into a fighting match — may seem like the best way to deal with a conflict. But research shows this kind of discord can significantly interfere with a child’s behavior and sense of emotional security.

In their egocentrism, children may believe they are to blame for their parents’ conflict. The resulting core shame can have a lasting effect on their ability to form healthy relationships. “The good news,” Cummings explained in the article, “is that if partners work together toward a resolution and kids see that positive emotionality, it wipes away the negative impact.”

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