Scientific Portal of Expressions, Body Language and Nonverbal Communication#

Search this site

Gestures: Are they learned or genetic?

Along with Prof. Dr. Paul Ekman's bench-marking work that proved the universality of facial expressions of basic emotions, prevailing behavioral researches in world of psychology are attributed to human nonverbal communication.

The strength of the contributions made by of Dr. Ekman left no room for any doubts and today no one questions that basic emotions have a universal facial expression pattern that is contained in our genetic makeup.

However, what about the gestures we make by hands or head? Are they learned or genetically inherited? Let's find out what a research says.

My approach in this article is taking you attention to a research conducted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany) that has recently been published by BBC Science.

Group of wild bonobos - Closest primate cousins to humans
According to scientists and as they managed to film on many occasions, several members of primate species called as Bonbons shook their heads from side to side to prevent others to do something they didn’t want. In one of the recordings, a mother shook her head to stop her baby playing with food.

Researchers say that this could be a precursor to t
he behavior of shaking head used by humans observed in one of our closest primate relatives. Chimpanzees seem to shake their heads to avoid behaviors that do not satisfy.

"Our observations are the first to report the use of negative movement of head in bonobos," says Christel Schneider, who led the study. According to his research, the recorded videos in Leipzig Zoo, a chimp mother shook her head in disapproval of playing with food by her baby.

"Ulindi is trying to prevent her daughter, Luiza, keep playing with a piece of leek", explains the researcher. "As Luiza ignored, despite repeated attempts to stop her, Ulindi finally shook his head at the young," he adds.

"No" from Bonbons

It is known that African great apes such as Bonobos (Pan paniscus) and Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), nodding used as negative (tilt or shake) to communicate with other members.

It was already known that bonobos use head shaking to initiate interactions with other members of their group and start playing. However, this is the first study that shows in films that an ape shaking his head in a negative context, to avoid or prevent other bonobo’s behavior.

Scientists based in Germany observed this behavior when the animals were being analyzed as part of a larger study about communication of offspring of the great apes.

With video cameras recorded the gestures and behavior of bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans in six European zoos. During the investigation, they found four bonobos shaking their heads in this way on 13 different occasions. Previously there were only anecdotal reports of chimpanzees shaking his head to indicate "no."

Socially Sophisticated

Scientists believe that the negative head movement is a precursor of the same behavior in humans. Scientists explain that bonobos use a wider range of head gestures than chimpanzees and are considered to be more sophisticated to use their head to indicate any meaning.

The authors say that these sophisticated systems of communication might have arisen because of apparently sophisticated society, tolerant, cooperative and democratic living in these animals where complex social structures and hierarchies diffuse. So perhaps bonbons developed the head nod to say "no" and negotiate conflict situations.

However, researchers are cautious and say they cannot be sure that the animals really want to deny when they shake their heads in this way. But so far this is still the best explanation, they say.

And as he told the BBC Schneider, we must clarify that the head movement is not always associated with something negative. In many countries moving head side to side is symbol of approval too.

[This article is translation of original article "Gestos, ¿aprendidos o genéticos?" written in Spanish (Español) by my friend, associate, and nonverbal communication researcher - Prof. Dr. Rafael López Pérez from Universidad Camilo José Cela, Madrid (Spain).]

Related Articles:

What is Nonverbal Communication?

Most of us confuse term 'Body Language' with 'Nonverbal Communication'. In fact, 'Body Language' and 'Nonverbal Communication' are two different scientific terminologies but they're also very closely related with each other. Body Language is exactly what body communicates, transmits, expresses, exhibits, conveys and displays without the help of words. Actually, 80% of our entire communication is corporeal i. e. body language.
It's a field of study which is related biology, neuroscience and sociology. Whatever an (living) individual or a creature is inherently and intrinsically capable of communicating with outer world and people through physical movements, body positioning, body orientations, body postures, hand signals, hand gestures, facial expressions, emblems, fidgeting, tones of voice and para-sympathetic reactions should be considered as Body Language.

Term “Nonverbal” itself clearly means “without or in the absence of words”. Nonverbal Communication is an unimaginably vast and deep scientific area which is related with observing, analyzing and interpreting behavior/behaviour, movements, gestures, expressions, signals, clues, hints, physical conditions, physical states and patterns of both natural and artificial entities, including human beings and all other creatures.
Physical reality, nature and whole biological world are fundamentally, explicitly and absolutely nonverbal. Hence, everything that we (or any living beings) feel, observe, experience, smell, taste, touch, hear (other than words), measure, judge, grasp and gauge through different sensory organs and eventually respond to is independent of words. Spoken and written languages are our own inventions or tools and thus they are relative and imperfect.

Scientifically, Body Language is related with social cognition and affective neuroscience whereas Nonverbal Communication includes Vocal (Para Linguistics), Peripheral and Contextual factors according to which human and animal body language can be preciously analyzed.

Perhaps, most of us might have skill or ability to pick body language clues but may not be able to interpret them precisely or accurately through the key factors of Nonverbal Communication.
Kinesics is the new scientific field related to interpretation of different elements of body language in different practical situations.

Nonverbal Communication broadly includes following factors:

A) Corporeal: Postures, Body Movements, Body Orientation, Gestures (Emblems, Illustrators and Regulators),
Facial expressions (Macro, Micro and Subtle), Oculesics (Eye contact, gaze and glancing), Pupilometry (Interpretation of Psychological state by measuring pupil size), Haptics (Touch), Proxemics (Interpersonal/Social Distance) and Sympathetic-Parasympathetic Displays

B) Contextual: Physical Environment, Social Situation, Culture Norms, Genetic Inheritance  and Chronemics (Time)
C) Peripheral: Objects, Attire, Chromatics (Color), Olfactics (Smell), Thermal and Chemical Signals

D) Vocal (Para Linguistics): Tone,Tempo, Pitch, Rhythm, Annotation and also Silence
Without considering, taking into account or emphasizing context, clustering and congruence (the referential and authenticating integrity among different nonverbal clues); both trying to understand and convey even an ordinary or trivial message can lead us to nowhere.

I sincerely wish and also hope that next time anybody confuses body language with nonverbal communication and vice a versa, you would definitely be able to explain the difference and relation between both with confidence, mentioning about this article.

By now, you've might understood both terms and posses the knowledge to
understand, explore, analyze, study, demystify and decode and the unimaginably vast “Nonverbal World” around yourself which is expanded at the cosmic scale.

Matter of fact, words from any human language fall short or completely fail to describe, explain and illustrate most of the biological world, (nature of) reality, complexity, different entities and interactions among them.

Related Articles: