Scientific Portal on Body Language, Kinesics and Nonverbal Communication#

Search this site

Turtle Effect: Body response under threat

We all remember our good old childhood days and especially cheerful play time with our family and friends. Out of many amusing and thrilling activates that each of us might have had, tossing in air and catching back in repetition done by elders was mixed with excitement and fear. Even though the vertical distance a child is tossed at isn’t unsafe but definitely frightening for it. Almost every child on this planet might have experienced the mixed feelings deep inside even though it couldn’t explain it into words. Still, that very mixed feeling thrills and amuses or most of us in our routine life.

We like to get scared but obviously in a controlled situation and we’re ready to pay for same too. In fact, whole multimillionaire amusement industry has spread its roots over the planet by scaring and thrilling us only. Now, this same industry is looking forward to scare and amuse us above surface of earth. I’m talking about space tourism or zero-gravity experience that a person other than astronauts could enjoy. I really don’t know the exact date I could (afford) fly in an outer space but I always wanted to take similar kind of experience on ground.

Recently, I got an opportunity to visit Adlabs Imagica - an amusement park which is located near Khopoli (Mumbai) and close to Yashwantrao Chavan Expressway. Coincidentally, my wife was with me to experience an enormous thrill of different rides and simulations. By taking three different roller coaster rides, I could test my courage and also feel the thrill deep inside my gut. Almost everybody was screaming and shouting till each ride coming to an end. Even after trying harder, we couldn’t stop ourselves by doing so because body was in total control of an unconscious mind.

While coming down from height quickly, moving faster on banked turns and getting rolled   in 360 degrees on steel rail; our bodies were getting hurled or tossed and pushed abruptly in almost every direction. Many of us must have felt mild, moderate or strong tingling sensation inside stomach especially while looking down at steep slope from very highest points but suddenly realizing that we cannot escape from moving seat going down on same path. Body’s quickest (within milliseconds) and natural response in this kind of situation is to protect itself from potential harm that might cause by falling down from above. Watch this video clip and experience what a rider might be feeling.


Even if we consciously know that we won’t fall off (of course, until protecting arrangement malfunctions) the seat, we tightly grip the straps, bars and railings to avoid falling. While going down deep from above or taking a dive, we unconsciously push our bodies towards the back of seat to minimize gravitational drag and retain center of gravity at its place as much as possible. Most astounding thing we can easily observe or realize is that most riders on roller coaster or inside any threatening simulators pull all movable parts of body inside and towards torso (an upper body).

(Courtesy: bodylanguageproject.com)
This phenomenon is called as ‘Turtle Effect’ because a turtle does same in face of danger. It pulls all movable body parts (legs, tail and neck) inside its shell to avoid potentials injuries to them and thus increase chances of survival. We clearly know that we don’t carry any natural or artificial shell or armor like a turtle all the time and also we walk on two feet only. Still, we protect our neck by raising both shoulder high as if they are about to touch ears. We clench our feasts and tug or keep our forearms close to our neck. We clasp our legs together, pull them towards abdomen, lock them at ankles and grip them tightly sometimes.

How this response might have evolved in us at first place? It has evolved in us the same way we’ve evolved into humans from creatures. Our remotest ancestors didn’t roam on two feet (limbs) but four. In fact, they used to roam and forage inside oceans only with help of fins before evolving into land roaming quadrupedal (four limbed/legged) amphibians. Let me make it clear here that our remotest ancestors weren’t fishes but they were having overall philological features almost similar to a fish - except the ability to breathe by nose.

Retreated Turtle
Vertebral and quadrupedal body structure i. e. ability to adopt different postures with the help of spine or backbone (vertebras connected in an elongated shape) and roam on limbs, ultimately led to development of ribcage - an astounding structure made up of bones to cover and protect different life supporting organs. Still, stomach remained unprotected because of its functions like storing food, digesting it and exerting wastage. Since stomach needs to expand and contract in cycles, any solid structure or protection can hinder its normal functions.

In face of any physical risk or an advance of a predator, only thing any vertebral and tetra-pedal creatures can do is to pull all moving body parts inside to provide protection to them and also to cover exposed stomach. Thus two great goals are met while defending most of the body and multiplying the chances of survival. This strategy was further inherited by all descending species that evolved to roam on land and fly in the sky and climb on trees. As we evolved from the greater apes, we still adopt same defense tactics that was evolved before millions of years ago.

If you get an opportunity to ride a roller coaster or seat inside a scary and body shaking simulator, try to keep all your movable body parts in perfectly normal position. You may not because of unconscious suggestions you might get from deep inside. Since we are not designed to fly and dive from tens and hundreds of feet like bird, our body tries to protect itself from falling on ground and getting hurt by either moving hands rapidly like a birds or getting itself pulled inside like a turtle.

(Special Thanks to Mr. Joe Navarro, Former FBI Special Agent and Pioneer of Nonverbal Communication, for coining term 'Turtle Effect' with respect to nonverbal behavior.)

Related Articles:

2 comments:

  1. I am probably the Alpha Male, Type A personality, in many ways I have too much personality. This is the first time I have heard the term "Turtle Effect," but have witnessed it many times. However, I often misinterpret it, and think the person is angry with me, and I should allow them space. Just the other day, here in Kara, Togo, West Africa as an white American I entered a sewing shop, and one girl looked as though she hated me. So, I steered clear of her, but as I returned to the same shop a few times, the Turtle came out of her shell and has no become my best of friends. There always appears to be the opposite body language, and my gut feeling is we have to take great care, this is not as universal as we could believe. Yes, they are universal, but often with two ways of interpretation. Thanks for your enlightened explanations. Andy Graham working with Malaria here in Kara, Togo and never speaking the local verbal language, but using body language 90 percent of the day.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great article..! Very apt example as well. The roller coaster scene for example is a situation in which you would expect the turtle effect and people would find it almost obvious there if they noticed it. However when performed subtly (maybe by a child abuse victim or a guilty suspect) it is not so easy to spot unless you know what to observe and when.

    ReplyDelete

Please post your valuable comment here.