The Scientific Portal of Behavior, Body Language and Nonverbal Communication#

Search for

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?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please post your valuable comment here.