We use our words as our primary means of communicating a message — we use them to win arguments, express ideas, paint imaginary pictures, and weave them into forms of art.
Turns out, this form of language isn’t the only way we communicate with each other. Our bodies move and sway in sync with our words, and continue to speak even when we stay quiet.
How The Body Speaks
We use our bodies intentionally when we do things like shrug our shoulders, clap our hands, shake our heads, or roll our eyes. Other times, our bodies go behind our backs to reveal our moods or thoughts without our awareness, such as when we unknowingly point our feet in one direction, make our bodies take up less space, or touch our neck and face.
David Lambert points out three key purposes to body language: As a conscious replacement for speech, such as when we wink or give the thumbs up; to reinforce speech, as in when we use hand gestures to help articulate a point we’re making orally; and as a reflection of mood, such as our expressions, body pointing, and dilated pupils.
Body language was likely the means by which we communicated in the ages before the human capacity for language even evolved. British zoologist Desmond Morris suggested in 1969 that we owe our nonverbal communication to our animal nature.
Earlier still, in 1872, Charles Darwin claimed that humans and apes express similar facial expressions inherited from a common ancestor.
It’s not only humans and apes, other animals from lizards to birds and dogs all puff up their chests when they want to establish dominance. We know a dog feels guilty when he lowers his head, but we also know that we too can give those puppy dog looks.
Both us and different animals dance to attract mates, and shrink down when we’re rejected or defeated.
Our bodies appear to be powerful, universally expressive tools that say much more than we realize, both when we want them to and when we’re oblivious to it.
The Physical Thought
Something strange has come to light in the last few decades — the idea that our bodies are not only expressing our minds, but that the body can directly influence the mind in its own way. This is a two-way street.
There is an emerging field in psychology known as embodied cognition, whose main premise is that our bodies and the world around us don’t only influence us, but are intimately woven within our thoughts. Our experiences are part of our thinking.
Studies within this field have brought us some incredible findings — Sitting in a hard chair makes people less willing to compromise than if they were in a soft chair; holding a heavy clipboard caused people to take their jobs more seriously; holding a warm drink made people judge another as more generous and caring than those holding cold drinks.
It’s putting a new spin on what we make of our minds. The typical idea that our consciousness sits inside our brains and observes the world, controlling the body to do its deeds, is only half the story.
Much of our body language happens without our awareness, we just go along with it. But, if we look at this idea of embodied cognition, we might find that by becoming aware and using the mind’s power to volitionally choose our form and motion, we can purposefully alter our minds and moods.