by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
There has long been confusion in the community about the difference between body character/structure versus the art of behavioural body reading. As the science of body centric psychology has developed and studies have been conducted into the theories and frameworks around each of these different disciplines, some of the conventional truths that underpin these practices have come under closer scrutiny.
The concept of body character or structure is that physical outcome of a person's adult body structure in terms of proportion, size and tonality of body bone, tissues and musculature, and the role that environment and perception plays in the expression of DNA processes, and the corresponding outcome in the body. This proposition is increasingly finding confirmation amongst the developments of Epigenetics and neuro based sciences.
The body archetypes, the bodily issues and defences that arise have been mapped to client stories of their childhood developmental environments as well as relationships and the resulting beliefs and compensating strategies used to cope with these when not positive. These often find expression in the body and the 100 years of clinical work at this level has refined the understanding of nuances of each archetype, but broadly confirmed and validated the early work of Reich and other pioneers such as Alexander Lowen.
Contrasted to this has been the attempts to find meaning and purpose in the behavioural action tendencies of people as well as focussing on the minutia of face and limb features such as fine shapes of fingernails, ears, eye balls etc. Some of these systems are Eastern and may date back thousands of years and various interpretations of the same system may exist.
There was a golden era in the 1960's when behavioural psychology in general, and body action or body language interpretation had its main advocates. Not all of the attempts to explain body language or body action tendencies were based on clinical assessment of any rigour but were generalised assumptions arising from interpretation of actions and postures of others who were developing new modalities.
Whilst there has been a long lineage of psychoanalytic theorists such as Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, John Conger, and others who have placed the subconscious mind as being embodied within us beyond the boundaries of the physical brain, and that the body contained meaning in its shape, musculature, posture and degree of fluidity and energy. In the 1960's some went beyond this original premise and conceived behavioural level translations of body gestures and movements as being attached to unconscious meaning.
This idea was pursued by other modalities and writers who were less involved in body centric psychology as being central to their work. Over time various forms of body reading theory evolved and were given further credence by the publication of several books on body posture and body reading by such authors as Allan Pease.
The result has been that a form of blended truth and urban myth which has built up over time that has allowed popular culture to speculate on the core intentions and drives of people in the public glare based on some of the liberal interpretations of body reading lore.
In the field of life and business coaching the adoption of half understood tenets of this body of thought are commonly taught from "experts" who try to propose how we should embody ourself, look, intone our voice, stand, sit, and place our gestures and movements relative to another person. The idea that we should "mask" our true self and adopt a false self is an inherent move away from integrity and toward psychological distress inasmuch that living out of truth with oneself will be felt both within oneself and by others.
The implication is that our unconscious mind through the body will either "give us away" as being negative or somehow lacking power or authority, or that we can manipulate another into liking us, do business with us, or give us their power. This approach is often based on creating a new self that constellates on a narcissistic set of values such as power, authority, success, winner, wealth, and attraction.
However more recently the evolution of social and cognitive neuroscience research and studies have started to question the premise and validity of some of the core propositions of the body reading proponents and the techniques and assumptions they operate from.
For instance some theorists postulate that a single trait has meaning and purpose in understanding the unconscious drive of that person. Still others try to spread the risk and foster the idea of a "cluster" or several traits as if emanating together in the moment-to-moment experience of another, is a sure give away of their unconscious as to motives and beliefs and subconscious communication.
The body reading social media event of 2012 was the chatter and noise generated over the body language, postures, and intonation in the voice of Barack Obama in his first presidential debate with contender Mitt Romney. Various experts jumped online to denounce Barack as being "defeated", "unprepared", "depressed", "avoidant" and "negative". The basis for these conclusions came from observations of Barack looking downwards, pursing his lips, looking upwards to the left, and pushing his hand outwards with palm facing outwards.
Magazines such as New Scientist have researched this whole area and have not been impressed with the validity of the claims concerning body reading. Their investigation found that a vast majority of the claims in this area could not be substantiated when tested.
In addition they examined areas in society which would widely benefit if the claims were able to be true. For example the area of forensic and criminal psychology has conducted studies to test the popular claims of body reading now made mainstream by proponents in NLP, behavioural psychology, and business/life coaching organisations.
The University of Hatfield study was one such example of research that wanted to see if the propositions touted by body language proponents worked. If so then interrogation of criminal suspects could be aided with such interpretive knowledge. The study found that the notion that liars gave themselves away with "tell-tale" embodied signals, body gestures and postures had no statistical or psychological truth that warranted any further attention.
The study rendered many of the popular notions as not conforming to any one group, any one context, or showing when it is claimed the gesture should show up. Gestures such as fidgeting, looking to the right, holding their own hands, scratching their nose, averting their gaze from interviewers were found to neither be significant or present in offenders, and present in innocents when they should not manifest such signals.
Likewise in the 1960's, just about when I Dream Of Jeannie started on TV, another genie was let out of its bottle and the bottle holder has tried and failed ever since to rebottle a urban myth of body reading that escaped and took off that fateful day in the 1960's. Albert Mehrabian has been part of the holy grail of body reading proponents in NLP and other modalities who use his name to legitimise claims about the percentage of verbal versus non verbal communication.
If one looks at most NLP literature they will find a claim that our communication is 93 per cent non-verbal and 7 per cent verbal based on any situation where we are actually saying something. Mehrabian is a social psychologist at the University of California who had in the late 1960's made a statement about the emotional message conveyed by the tone of voice and facial expression that differed from the word being spoken.
The attribution made to Mehrabian was that only 7 per cent of the emotional message comes from the words we use, with 38 per cent coming from the tone of our voice, and 55 per cent from non-verbal cues from our bodies. What went missing in this claim was that Mehrabian never intended this to be some form of black and white formula or proscribed model of how we communicate.
Mehrabian has spent 40 years trying to rebottle this genie which proponents at the time latched onto and ran away with as proof of their modality and the idea of behavioural body reading models that can be accurately mapped and so decoded, taught, and used to explain the human condition. The context of his original 1960's statement was about a very tight context of communication, that being when someone is talking about their likes and dislikes.
The problem has been for Mehrabian is that the body reading proponents have been desperately searching for main stream credibility and latched onto him for that reference ability. His attempts to have proponents recant his words has failed as they cannot lose a pillar of their argument all these years later.
As Mehrabian himself points out if we are 93 per cent non-verbal in nature we should be able to visit foreign speaking cultures and assimilate within days, but of course that just does not happen. What other studies have found is that a person's "gut reaction" is more accurate in determining the truth or other of a person in terms of congruency between their "body language" versus their verbal language.
The recent neuroscience findings move us closer to understanding how none of us really need to be trained in any form of body based behavioural reading courses at all. The findings of neuroscience are that we all employ through our mammalian or limbic brain structures a natural "body reading" process of other people as part of our subconscious safety making process in our moment-to-moment experience of life.
It is now known that we all possess a complex set of "mirror neurons" within the "fight or flight" part of the brain which acts to internally receive and mimic the actions, gestures, tones and bodies of all action-objects we encounter. This process is designed so that we can quickly classify others as friend, foe or neutral, and then orient ourself and our response from this conclusion.
We all in fact are body readers and the term "gut instinct" is that neuro-transmitter mediated response to the rich sites of neuro-transmitter receptors that lie in the walls and linings of our stomach. We "feel" a gut instinct based on the conclusion of the mirror neuron process which in turn gets our amygdala to release "fight or flight" or "love" substances that prepare us internally to respond, and these get bound in the stomach at the sites of the receptors, which is what we "feel".
Our higher consciousness has instinctive associations around which gut instinct has been activated and hence the internal messages we instinctively get sometimes. This natural process is a far more reliable instrument and process of reading another's body through some popular culture behavioural based course taught by others.
This process also is able to spot the self or other taught techniques of professional image management where it applies to body behavioural techniques. We cannot hide the discord between our true and false selves that mirror neurons uncover when others read us being out of integrity. How many times have we seen such displays and thought this person is false or plastic or creepy!!
In the area of speech intonation there is evidence that the tone of speech can affect the receivers nervous system and create a "fight or flight" reaction where in the receiver the tone of voice of the speaker has a "seems like feels like" learnt association from the past. In this context someone may remind us of say an angry father and so trigger in us unresolved fear of anger issues, or trauma from having been yelled at in our past.
It is also true that the prosody of speech can positively affect people to relax into a parasympathetic state as the tone can sympathetically calm us down. A mother cooing to their baby, a soft calm voice from another when we are in distress or traumatised, can all significantly affect us.
However the idea that in a general state of functioning reality we can allow ourself to command and control others is less persuasive than the idea of group think and hysteria in the audience. The compelling speeches of Hitler to the German faithful in Nuremburg rallies attest to the power of emotional and passionate speech, but that again is not a programmed set of universal techniques to influence others, but a demonstrated sense of complete conviction in an idea that creates emotional resonance in the audience.
Another added complication in conviction of the truth is perception. Next month I will publish an accompanying article entitled "Liar! Liar! Pants on Fire!!", where it is revealed that we also have a naturally inbuilt faulty mechanism of memory recovery and up to 8 possible neural sources of mis-attribution. This means that what is truth and what is lying is a much harder conclusion to pin down and lying is also a misunderstood concept that does not lend itself to be revealed or betrayed through the body.
The findings of New Scientist magazine as well as criminal bureaus such as the FBI also note that we should not go around accusing people of lying based on their body language, hand gestures or eye movements. They have found the guilty may be innocent and the innocent may be guilty if viewed through the lens of behavioural body reading.
As USA Psychologist David McNeill, who studies human and limb gestures at the University of Chicago notes, the enormous range of different contexts for gestures, plus the variability of dexterity, action tendency and habit render all notions of universal typing of gestures into categories as a fanciful notion not supported by the facts.
McNeill challenges in New Scientist magazine the notions sold by executive consultants and coaches that hand gestures have subconscious importance beyond conscious signalling. The common idea that crossed arms are about defensiveness, that "steepling" your fingers makes you look authoritative, and that open hands signal honesty, are limited context perceptions conveyed more by management and image consultants than any external conventional reality itself.
What emerges from the various findings of informed researchers is that we are context specific, and that very few, if any actual body gestures are arbitrary as a set of universal rules or hard wired action tendencies. There are one or two macro exceptions noted by New Scientist magazine who noted that some gestures appear cross culturally, possibly from mirroring and modelling by others and so learnt, or possibly as built in instinctual gestures.
The one that we all can probably remember is the "V" for Victory sign that athletes from almost every country used at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games when running around after winning an event in celebration. The cues for this may be past convention from either prior Olympic practices, from other professional sporting culture norms of celebration, or it may be an ingrained gesture of human celebration.
No one is sure so again it is speculative and not a certainty but the fact that athletes who have been blind from birth still instinctually follow this action tendency make it a candidate for a gesture who has some definitive body reading potential.
The one area that is known to be true and which is no surprise is the ability for someone to change their own posture and behavioural gestures to influence others perception of them. This form of camouflage then shifts the basis for body behavioural understanding away from interpreting others and towards manipulating others.
In psychology we know that one may adopt postures and behaviours and gestures that will shape perceptions in others. This is the act of creating a false self which creates camouflage from which to hide the real self behind. This approach does work in the short term and is what a lot of image coaching focuses on.
However it also has ethical issues, not the least that it is built on a lie and is based on the conscious manipulation of another person from that place. It may be said that anyone advocating such a way of being and doing in business or in personal ways of acting is practicing deception from a more palatable notion of self-image.
There certainly are embodied states of posture which reflect action tendencies of significance and meaning and which work on the bi-directional pathway of biofeedback between the brain and the body. Change the body and change the mind is true in fight or flight oriented postures that affect our psychology.
It is also true of positive states such as meditative and yoga postures which work authentically on our physical, mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual dimensions of self. Humans do have meaningful postural stances which influence our sense of self and others sense of our self.
For instance the adoption of a confident and aggressive open stance will send biofeedback to the brain and in turn be read as the need to adopt a "fight" stance and hence the amygdala part of the brain works with the Hypothalamus to release testosterone. Adoption of a slumped posture is known to be able to trigger grief or sadness or a feeling not unlike the negativity of depression.
Practice yoga or meditation for a period of time and notice the results. However these actions and postures are situational and intentional from a certain context. They are not proof of a more broadly expressive nature of all behavioural actions having meaning and purpose to the adopter of the posture or action, or the receiver or viewer of that posture or action.
So the nature of body structure or characterology over time has been reinforced, refined and further understood by emerging new disciplines within neurophysiology, neuroscience, and body centric psychology. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for behavioural based body reading frameworks very popular within coaching and some self-development modalities within the community.
We know that the body contains our unconscious mind and aspects of our disowned feelings and self, but there is still not yet evidence that the body as a storyboard that tells us a story of our journey through life and how we adapted, adjusted, coped and defended against issues along the way, also includes now being a moment-to-moment subconscious expression at the behavioural level of those same outcomes.
We are far too complex to be reduced once again to a set of simple behavioural outcomes that decide our meaning. What recent science and psychology has confirmed is increasing complexity and holism of our human condition. Behavioural body reading is fast becoming a quaint by-product of an era of experimentation, hope and new ideas that was the 1960's.
However I think the genie is fast going back into the bottle after all these years beguiling us with the shimmering and allure of promises of what authority, insight and power that we might acquire by becoming adepts at behavioural body reading. Behavioural body reading is just one set of wishful thinking rather than one wish that any Genie can grant you at any self- development course near you!!