Adam's-Apple Cue

Body movement. 1. A conspicuous up-and-down motion of the Adam's apple. 2. A movement of the throat visible while gulping or swallowing, as in nervousness.

Usage: The Adam's-apple-jump is an unconscious sign of emotional anxiety, embarrassment, or stress. At a business meeting, e.g., a listener's Adam's apple may inadvertently jump should he or she dislike or strongly disagree with a speaker's suggestion, perspective, or point of view.

A personal reflection. I love the Adam's-apple-jump. Unconscious and uncontrollable, it gives an exquisite look into the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) division of the autonomic nervous system.

U.S. politics. The Adam's apple gained it's 15 minutes of fame when former Vice President James Danforth Quayle's thyroid cartilage "jumped" in the 1988 vice-presidential debates, as his opponent, Lloyd Bentsen, pointedly replied, "I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!" (Please see the YouTube Video, below.) More recently, in the third presidential debate of October 22, 2012, candidate Mitt Romney's Adam's apple visibly jumped as he swallowed and gulped after passively listening to President Barack Obama's claim that Romney had "flip-flopped" on numerous foreign-policy issues. (Please see the YouTube Video, below.)

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. Swallowing "associates well with flight and submission" (Grant 1969:528). 2. Stimulating the emotionally sensitive amygdala can cause involuntary body movements "associated with olfaction and eating, such as licking, chewing, and swallowing" (Guyton 1996:758-59). 3. The founder of kinesics, Ray Birdwhistell, included an entry for "Adams Apple Jump" (without defining or explaining the term) on p. 2 of his 1952 book Introduction to Kinesics.

Anatomy. Anxiety, social discomfort (e.g., embarrassment), and fear are often visible in unwitting, vertical movements of a projection at the front of the throat called the laryngeal prominence, where the largest (or thyroid) cartilage of the Adam's apple shows, prominently in men, but less noticeably in women.

Neuro-notes. Acting through the vagus nerve (cranial X), emotional tension from the brain's limbic system causes unconscious muscular contractions of the sternothyroid, thyrohyoid, and associated inferior pharyngeal constrictor muscles of the Adam's apple. Movement is evident as the muscles contract to swallow, to throat-clear, or to vocalize an objection which may be left unsaid. The Adam's apple is emotionally responsive (i.e., reflects visceral or "gut" feelings) because its muscles are mediated by the vagus nerve, one of five cranial special visceral nerves.


YouTube Video: Look closely and you can see Quayle's Adam's apple jump as Bentsen says "friend of mine."

YouTube Video: Look closely and you can see Romney's Adam's apple jump when Obama says "of the 1920s."

Copyright 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)
Detail of illustration (copyright 1951 by Stephen R. Peck [in Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist (London: Oxford University Press), p. 101])