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January 28, 2014

The Body seeking comfort

When we read bodies for their underlying meaning, it’s important to understand that the body is controlled by emotion and that the inner workings of our minds are constantly juggling many factors all of which seek to create comfort. One might also say that bodies seek to escape or eliminate discomfort, but if a body runs from discomfort, it is the same as running toward comfort. Thus, seeking comfort is the primary motivation behind body language. Let me explain.

The mind is a complex organ but it is runs over very simple principles. It is primarily motivated by fear. The mind seems to be complex and creatively driven, but it is in fact primitive in its design. While it is true that we are capable of higher-order thinking, emotions are still a large driver in our behavior and decision-making process and these are rooted in our deep reptilian base.

When you think of the human mind, think of it like a piece of clay. At its base is the primitive reptilian clump - the brain stem. The reptilian brain produces visceral bodily responses such as heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, respiration, digestion and reproduction. Over evolution, different pieces of clay have been scabbed over top i. e. the neocortex ('neo' means new).

The reptilian produces nonverbal body language that is deemed more truthful than that generated by the neocortex which is capable of producing conscious movements. While part of the brain can work consciously, it is the clay at the bottom, the root clump, the reptilian brain that interferes with the mind’s ability to work free of emotion.

The origins of our more intense motivations are driven by our primitive emotions. While we like to imagine humans as being much more sophisticated than our animal counterpart, we still largely act based on gut instincts.

ave you ever wondered what drives people to make certain decisions in their daily lives?  Do you assume that they are trying to maximize their fitness and well-being, that they are perfectly rational? You shouldn’t. While people are capable of rational thinking, they often make poor decisions overall. While some of the blame might fall on the lack of knowledge i. e. imperfect assumptions and information, a large part of it is due to emotional underpinnings.

When we talk investments, greed and fear are primary motivators. They often lead the investor astray.

In body language, the primary emotional motivator is safety and comfort. When the body curls up into a fetal position by pulling the arms and legs together, the body language reader might correctly read discomfort, but the root cause within a person is sought comfort.

'Fetal' or self-protecting posture
The body balls up to remind itself of being protect by Mom during infancy and within the womb. It just feels comfortable to huddle up into a ball. When the negative emotion passes, the body will find comfort sprawled out on a couch.

On the other hand, the smug lawyer feels comfortable sprawled out all the time. He puts his arms over the chair next to him, gesticulates in conversation, juts his chin out and acts boisterous. His confidence (or cockiness) is displayed by his level of comfort

We remind ourselves of the comforts we received throughout our childhood in many ways. We pet and stroke the back of our head, we hug ourselves with our arms, we cross and hide behind objects to block ourselves from overexposure.

These remind us of comforts provided by Mom and Dad where they would hug us tightly, stroke the back of our head and provide us a secure place to hide - tucked in between their legs with only our heads poking out!

Comfortable people will hold their bodies loose rather than rigid and their body will move with fluidity. They will gesture with their speech instead of freezing instantly or awkwardly, called “flash frozen.” Comfortable people mirror others around them instead of avoiding synchrony. Their breath rate will be similar and they will adapt similar postures instead of showing differences.

'Spread out' or comfortable posture
Bodies show discomfort by increased heart rate, breath rate, sweating, a change in normal color in the face or neck, trembling or shaking in the hands lips, or elsewhere, compressing the lips, fidgeting, drumming the fingers and other repetitive behaviors. Voices often crack when under stress, mouths might dry up producing noticeable swallowing, “hard swallows”, or frequent throat clearing.

Discomfort is shown by using objects as barriers. A person may hold drinking glasses to hide parts of their face or use walls and chairs while standing to lean against for support.

A person suffering discomfort might engage in eye blocking behaviors by covering their eyes with their hands or seem to talk through them or even squint so as to impede what is being said from entering their minds. The eyes might also begin to flutter or increase in overall blink rate showing an internal struggle.

Many people have wrongfully discounted the hidden meanings behind body language. They say, I’m not hugging myself tightly because I’m scared or timid, I just feel more comfortable that way. However, as an expert in reading people, ask yourself why balling the self up feels so comfortable.

When analyzing people, make sure you read them through the principle of seeking comfort. Comfort and discomfort are powerful forces in the emotional lives of people especially in nonverbal communication.

Author: Mr. Christopher Phillip, Guelph, Ontario, Canada. (He's a creator of website.)

Related Articles:
1) Turtle Effect: Body response under threat 2) Fear Factor 3) Surprise vs Startle Reflex 4) Basic responses in stressful situations 5) Body Language under Stress

January 12, 2014

It’s Written All Over You...

Some lies are performed brilliantly. What goes into telling a lie..? The more intelligent a species, the larger the neocortex and the better the ability to lie. For obvious reasons, man tops that list (and more technically, women outshine the men). But not everybody can lie with a ‘straight face’. Why..? Is there a force that works against our deceptive words..? If yes, where does this force originate and how does it manifest itself? This article aims to develop a basic understanding of the emotive processes that underlie deceptive speech and how our bodies can sometimes, have a mind of their own.

In the thousands of years that man has walked the earth, there is one thing about us that hasn’t changed: our instinct for self-preservation; an innate desire to save ourselves and keep ourselves at a distance from anything that threatens our existence. An instinct embedded in all living organisms, ours has taken on several forms and doesn’t just come in to play when our physical selves are vulnerable.

Gradual changes in Physical Features

It has been a while since we’ve found ourselves running for dear life from felines somewhere in the African wilderness. But that’s not to say modern day society doesn’t host its share of situations held synonymous with wild cats.

There is a part of the human brain that never forgot the self-preservation tactics it strategically developed to help pre-historic man cope with trouble. This part of the brain is one of three parts of what later came to be known as the ‘Triune Brain’ or ‘the three-in-one brain’. The Triune Brain comprises of the Limbic Brain, the Reptilian Brain and the Neo-cortex (Human Brain).

The human brain is the one that churns out untruths. The Limbic Brain is one that does not think - it just reacts. It is so dead honest that no matter what the human brain comes up with, the limbic brain finds a way to shield itself and you from it. This performance is obviously dependent on the outrageousness of the falsity. Not many of us squirm when we feel the urge to tell someone their (distasteful) new hair-do is exquisite.


You’ve probably noticed several times how when you’re watching a horror flick, some scenes so petrifying make you tense up. You sit perfectly still almost holding your breath (at least till the bad guy is shot 7 times). You obviously don’t plan to sit that way with every intense scene. This is the Freeze response devised by the limbic brain to make you “inconspicuous to the threat at large”. You’re body senses danger and the first thing it does is tries to make you less of a target by reducing movement and thus reducing your chances of being noticed. Observe how the limbic system kicks in even when deception is not involved; but mere fright.

Apply the above to a scenario where a guilty crime suspect is being questioned. The first thing he might do unconsciously is stop making unnecessary movements while he tries to assess how much the police know about him. It would help if the police could visually pick up when his breathing gets shallow and resumes normalcy.

Taking Flight

This is by far the most interesting and extensive strategy developed by the limbic system. How convenient it would be if we could just literally run away from experiences or people we didn’t like. Sometimes when in a group, you can pick out the people who really don’t want to be there.

The feet being the farthest from the brain are considered to be the most honest; not many of us keep track of what our feet are doing anyway in times of positive excitement or stress. Many a time, your desire to leave a terribly boring meeting might resonate in your feet - one of which could be facing the exit.

The Flight response is more complex than just assessing which way the feet want to run off to. This response takes place in the form of distancing as well. Take a look at this couple. Observe how their bodies are slightly tilted away or disoriented from one another.


When the freeze and flight responses are not viable options or have failed, the Fight response may be resorted to. This does not necessarily mean a physical fight but could be by way of aggression in demeanor, posture or words.

We’re all well-versed with the three wise monkeys. But what do they have to do with us?

Three wise monkeys
The honest brain (the limbic brain) tends to get scandalized when it hears dishonest words. Almost as though it wants to stop the words from flowing, it quickly makes the speaker cover the source of these scandalous words - the mouth. However, like many obvious actions that can’t be performed so openly by an adult in public, this action is disguised so it can be executed without calling for attention. This is one reason for the very popular nose-rub.

Show a guilty crime suspect evidence of his incriminating text messages and he might want to distance himself or take flight from what he’s being shown. This is what he might look like if he does that. The same is in the case of someone who probably does not want to hear what you are saying or has invalidated what you’re saying.

Finally, following an uncomfortable or threatening situation, the Limbic brain switches to Pacifist mode. This is the time during which the brain helps you soothe yourself. Neck touching, wiping/ stroking sweaty palms along legs while seated, the comforting self-hug are all examples of pacifying behaviors.

In summary, the act of lying is something that puts most people at unease. This unease is exposed by the limbic system through pre-set codes like self-saving freeze, flight or fight gestures. It is to be kept in mind that such gestures are not symbolic of lies, rather merely of the experienced discomfort or anxiety which innocent people may face as well.

While body language is construed widely as casual entertainment; it is based on instinctive mechanisms that we all use. For example, it is the limbic system at work again when you intuitively decide that you like or dislike someone almost at first sight. While this article focuses on discomfort behavior, body language also contributes much to rapport and trust-building; because what we see counts.

#Truine Brain: The triune brain model suggests the basal ganglia was acquired first, which is thought to be in charge of our primal instincts, followed by the limbic system, which is in charge of our emotions or affective system, then the neocortex, which is thought to be responsible for rational or objective thought.

The triune brain model divides the brain into three parts: the reptilian complex, which includes the basal ganglia and brain stem, among other structures; the limbic system, which includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus, among other structures; and the neocortex.

The triune brain is a model of the evolution of the vertebrate fore-brain and behavior, proposed by the American physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. MacLean originally formulated his model in the 1960s and propounded it at length in his 1990 book The Triune Brain in Evolution.

Author: Ms. Rebecca D'Silva (Goa, India)
LLB, M.Sc. (Psychology and Investigation) from UK
Micro-Expressions Analyst
Related Articles:
1) Body Language Brain 2) Face or a liar(?) 3) Body rubbing to soothe brain 4) Are you a 'flying' terrorist?

January 04, 2014

Chameleon Fabrics for Social Clues?

How do you communicate intent and response when spoken language isn't possible? How do you let someone know something - when all you have are color-changing skin cells (chromatophores)? When we are afraid, our faces are very expressive, our verbal utterances even more so.

When we are confidently aggressive, our words and nonverbal gestures let everyone know just how confident we feel we are. This allows us to engage at a distance and avoid direct conflicts which might result in serious injury. But what if you are a lizard?

Until now, scientists were unsure about just how expressive the chromatophores of chameleons can really be. Scientists have found that they don’t simply change color to hide from predators. Chameleons use their skin cells to send nonverbal messages to one another.

Scientists can actually deduce the outcome of a nonverbal conflict between lizards, just by studying changes in their skin cell colors (Arizona State University, 2013; Ligon and McGraw, 2013). Like us, lizards send messages from a distance.

A little background: Humans are endotherms (we generate and regulate our own heat). But many creatures (like chameleons) are ectotherms (they depend on external temperatures). A side benefit though, is that only ectotherms can control the color of their skin cells. But wouldn't it be great if humans could, too?

Humans are extremely social creatures. So much so, that we have a number of disorders related specifically to inabilities to catch (or attend) nonverbal social cues (autism and ADHD for example). We also have automobiles, social media devices of various kinds and engage in very brief encounters that preclude our natural propensity to display nonverbal behaviors - the very same signals others rely on to figure out what we are doing or trying to say.

What if we could all be chameleons? What if we could make our skin tell others what they need to know - without having to stop what we’re doing and explain? What if those with attention deficits, autism and similar could catch all the nonverbal messages they missed, by simply looking at (conveniently) persisting, extra-expressive explanations on our bodies?

Researchers are working on woven LED displays like PLED (polymer light emitting diodes) which people can wear like fabric (Strickland, n. d.). Right now these luminescent fabrics make great advertising displays, or colorful stage costumes. But what if psychologists used them to help us send nonverbal messages to one another, while we are otherwise immersed (or overwhelmed) in a social setting? What if our clothing could express not only our taste and personality, but our real personality - what we are feeling very specifically but others couldn't see?

Then when someone hears (or misses) what we are saying and is unsure what we mean, a quick glance will elucidate that lost meaning in the same way chameleons send messages from a distance. “Sandy” Pentland (2008) of MIT Human Dynamics Lab is already experimenting with sociometric badges people can wear to send “honest signals” to one another.

This may allow gatherings of individuals to passively transmit the needed nonverbal signals needed to facilitate perception of social cues. Now imagine these badges using PLED fabric - a fabric equipped to pick up biofeedback signals and display them for others (instead of self-feedback) - now folks will know what we mean, not just what we are saying. And, they will know it longer than a simple gesture - it will be available to help them disambiguate meaning at whatever rate they are individually capable.

Imagine a classroom of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), side by side with average schoolchildren - engaged in the experience of learning new content - with the help of peer chameleons any one of which may hold the nonverbal social cue they missed. Wouldn't that be something?

Prof. Dr. Lonny Meinecke
(Location: Arizona, USA)
Author: Prof. Dr. Lonny Meinecke (Psychologist and Doctorate in Psychology from Grand Canyon University (Phoenix, USA))

1) Arizona State University (2013, December 11). Chameleons use colorful language to communicate. Newswise. Retrieved from
2) Pentland, A. (2008). Honest signals: How they shape our world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
3) Ligon, R. A; McGraw, K. J. (2013). Chameleons communicate with complex colour changes during contests: Different body regions convey different information. Biology Letters, 9(6), 20130892. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2013.0892
4) Strickland, J. (n.d.). Fabric displays using LEDs. Retrieved from

Related Articles:
1) What is Nonverbal Communication?