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  • Writer's pictureJeslyn Chng

The Language of Nonverbals (Part 1)

Contrary to popular belief, we humans have three “brains” in one skull. In 1952, scientist Paul McLean found that the brain consists of the stem brain, the limbic brain, and the neocortex brain. More interestingly, we can consider the limbic brain as the “honest brain”, as it is the part of the brain that reacts to our surroundings reflexively and instantaneously, from lifting our hands jubilantly into the air when our team scores a goal to scrunching our noses the moment someone we dislike enters the room. It controls reactions that occur without conscious thought and behaviors that are instinctively beneficial for our survival. Having not gone through analytical thought, limbic behaviors are the most honest and reliable as they are the true manifestations of our thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

The counterpart of the limbic brain, the neocortex, is known as the “lying brain”. It is capable of analyzing, interpreting, and thinking, which therefore distinguishes us, humans, from other animals. However, with its capability for complex thought and memory, the neocortex is also the part of the brain which allows us to lie and deceive, whether it is to compliment a friend’s choppy haircut or to snake out of a murder charge. Hence, behaviors controlled by the neocortex are the most unreliable when it comes to determining a person’s true sentiments.

From this, the importance of nonverbal language arises. Nonverbals, commonly known as body language or tells, is the global counterpart of the more evident output of the human species – speech. In a world where speech, controlled by the neocortex, is capable of not only truthful remarks but also lies and deception, honest nonverbal behaviors controlled by the limbic brain provides more reliable insight into one’s actual thoughts and feelings. Mastering the language of nonverbals is key to interpersonal relationships, be it making a new friend or acing an interview, and sometimes, even detecting lies.

Ever since the time of our ancestors, the limbic brain has ensured the survival of our species with three seemingly simple yet significant responses – freeze, flight, and fight. When encountering danger or shock, instead of ‘fight-or-flight’, one’s primary response to the situation is to freeze. Movement attracts attention. Hence, a million years ago, when our ancestors hunted for survival, the presence of a predator would cause humans to instinctively freeze, to prevent attracting unwanted attention. Imagine a deer in the headlights. During this ‘freeze time’, our brain assesses the situation and decides on the best response – whether to flee or to fight. Closer to home, the freeze response is evident in our daily lives. We all have the encounter of walking out of our houses, only to stop suddenly – freeze – and turn back to retrieve our forgotten keys. There was once when my friends and I were secretly having a movie party at our hostel when at midnight, there was a loud knock on the locked room door. Everybody froze. A second ago, we were munching chips and critically commenting on the movie, but at that moment, silence suddenly fell and everyone held our breaths. It was as if orchestrated, yet no one gave the command to freeze. When the door was opened to reveal another friend of ours, instead of the strict hostel mentor, a sigh of relief washed over us.

The freezing behavior also applies to a person being confronted with an uncomfortable situation. A student caught cheating may freeze in his chair, an interviewee being posed an awkward question may hold her breath and a suspect being interrogated may interlock his feet behind the chair legs for a prolonged period of time. Sensing these behaviors should alert us that the subject feels threatened, is under stress, and may or may not be concealing the truth. The freeze response can also be seen in an individual who attempts to ‘blend into the background’ and go unnoticed, much like shoplifters hunching over, trying to seem invisible, making them look unnatural and instead, stand out more. This ‘turtle effect’ is one’s attempt to hide in plain sight, seen when one subconsciously yearns to disappear, like a losing ball team walking out from a game. Evidently, our first response to dangerous, unexpected, and stressful situations is to turn into ice and freeze.

When freezing does not eliminate danger, our second line of defense comes into play – flight. The flight response refers not only to physically running away but also the evasive behavior in which one attempts to distance oneself from a threat. Picture a child being fed a spoonful of vegetables. As the spoon reaches his mouth, he would turn away from it and perhaps squirm in his chair, hence displaying the evasive flight response. When being in a room with someone we dislike, research has shown that we are likely to turn our feet towards the nearest exit, unconsciously trying to distance ourselves from the unwelcomed person. Besides, we may also try to put barriers between us and the threatening or uncomfortable situation. Businesspeople may close or rub their eyes upon hearing an unattractive offer, just as a student may pile books between him and his undesirable seatmate. These blocking and distancing behaviors manifest in our lives as the flight response controlled by the limbic brain.

If all fails, the limbic brain turns towards its final tactic – the fight response. Fighting is a form of aggression to protect oneself, displayed not only physically, but also verbally. People who punch, kick, and bite are essentially displaying the same ‘fight’ behavior as those who argue, insult and are sarcastic. A more subtle form of the fight response is the violation of one’s personal space. We all have our own spatial needs and feel intimidated or threatened when someone comes too close to our liking, therefore posing a challenge and a potential fight response. Before a fight, the limbic brain may take action to prepare for the aggression, including puffing of the chest, nostrils flaring, and the removal of barriers between ‘fighters’ like taking off a jacket or shirt. These behaviors are displayed without conscious thought, as they are the results of the limbic brain’s fight response.

A clear understanding of how the limbic brain functions helps in the observation and analysis of nonverbal clues. It helps us better assess a situation and hence enhances our interactions with people around us. The next time you notice a friend’s feet pointing towards the nearest exit while chatting with you, it may be a sign that the topic of discussion is making him unsettled. It is then up to you to change the topic, and it may just make you a more comfortable person to be with. Remember, actions speak louder than words. “If language was given to men to conceal their thoughts, then gesture’s purpose was to disclose them” – John Napier.

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