Gesture. 1. Rotating the head horizontally from side-to-side a. to disagree, or b. to show misunderstanding of a speaker's words. 2. In an emotional conversation, a rhythmic, side-to-side rotation of the head to express conviction, disbelief, sympathy, and/or grief.
Usage: The head-shake is used to demonstrate a.
cognitive dissonance, or b. emotional
Anatomy. Longus colli and splenius rotate the head from side-to-side, in tandem with sternocleidomastoid. The latter's prehistory as a branchiomeric muscle (originally used for respiration and feeding) makes it responsive as a "gut-reactive" sign of refusal (see below; see also SPECIAL VISCERAL NERVE).
RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. The head-shake is "probably" a universal sign of disapproval, disbelief, and negation (Darwin 1872:65); according to Morris [1994:144] it is "widespread"). 2. The first nonverbal nay-saying may occur when babies head-shake to refuse food and drink. Rhesus monkeys, baboons, bonnet macaques, and gorillas similarly turn their faces sideward in aversion (Altmann 1967). 3. Children born deaf and blind head-shake to refuse objects and to disapprove when being touched by an adult (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1973). 4. Evasive action shows in sideward head movements of young children to avoid the gaze of adults (Stern and Bender 1974). 5. A single sharp turn to one side (e.g., the Ethiopian head side-turn) can express negation as well (Morris 1994).
. . . I shall endeavor to show that the opposite gestures of affirmation and negation, namely, vertically nodding or laterally shaking the head, have both probably had a natural beginning. --Charles Darwin (1872, p. 65)
Students of gesture often assess the head-nod by gauging its contrast to the head-shake cue. In head-shaking, the head rotates right and left in the horizontal plane, often a. to disagree, b. to show incredulity or disbelief, and/or c. to show misunderstanding of a speaker's words. In an emotional conversation, a rhythmic head rotation may reflect one's personal convictions, condolences, sympathies, or feelings of grief. Thus, the head-shake may be used to show emotional disagreement, cognitive uncertainty, or emotional empathy--or all three feelings simultaneously.
Anatomy. Longus colli and splenius muscles (both supplied by cervical spinal nerves), in tandem with the sternocleidomastoid muscle (supplied by cranial nerve XI), rotate the head from side-to-side. The latter's prehistory as a branchiomeric muscle (originally used for respiration and feeding, and still controlled today by special visceral nerves) makes it responsive as a gut-reactive sign of refusal. Indeed, the first nonverbal nay-saying may occur when human babies head-shake to refuse proffered food and drink. As Morris (1994, p. 144) writes, "When a baby does not want food, either at the breast or when being spoon-fed, it twists its head away sideways."
Research. According to Darwin, the head-shake is "probably" a universal sign of disapproval, disbelief, and negation (1872, p. 65). Morris notes that the head-shake cue is geographically "widespread" (1994, p. 144). Rhesus monkeys, baboons, bonnet macaques, and gorillas similarly turn their faces sideward in aversion (Altmann 1967). Children born deaf and blind head-shake to refuse objects and to disapprove when being touched by an adult (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1973). Evasive action shows in sideward head movements of young children to avoid the gaze of adults (Stern and Bender 1974).
Students of gesture note supposed "exceptions" to the rule that head-shaking signifies negation. The Bulgarian and Indian "head-bobble," for instance, resembles a head-shake but is used instead like a head-nod, that is, as an affirmative cue. The head-bobble itself, however, does not involve horizontal rotations of the head, as measured in the body's horizontal plane, but rather involves oscillating, sideward head-tilts, alternatively angling right and left, as measured in the body's coronal plane. Indeed, when measured in terms of the gesture's involved muscles and geometric-planar body movements, the bobble is actually a sideward head-tilt.
Measured anatomically, the sideward head-tilt involves a. the scalene muscles (supplied by cervical spinal nerves), which connect the neck bones (cervical vertebrae) to the upper two ribs, as well as b. the upper trapezius (supplied by cranial nerve XI), and c. the sternocleidomastoid (also cranial XI). Controlled by special visceral nerves, the latter two muscles are well equipped to express positive or negative emotions, feelings, and moods.
Neuro-notes I. Mirror neurons: Mirror neurons for head-shaking are found in the human brain's superior temporal sulcus. (Source: Thagard, Paul . The Brain and the Meaning of Life [Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press].)
Neuro-notes II. Mirror neurons: "In the first weeks after birth [and '. . . probably subserved by the mirror [neuron] system . . .' (p. 21)] infants have been documented by experimental studies to imitate a variety of gestures, such as . . . head rotation . . ." [p. 24; source: Braten, Stein, and Colwyn Trevarthen (2007). Chapter 1: "Prologue," in Braten, Stein (Ed.), On Being Moved: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy (2007; Amsterdam: John Benjamins), pp. 21-34].
See also CUT-OFF, HEAD-NOD.
Copyright 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)