Nonverbal Cues

Gesture. 1. A position or movement of the hands used to depict the shape, motion, or location of a person, place or thing. 2. A speaking gesture in which the hands and fingers mimic physical, spatial, and temporal relationships among objects, activities, and events. 3. A hand gesture with neurological circuits as complex as those for speech.

Usage: Because they reveal the presence of conceptual thought, mime cues are our most intellectual gestures. Unlike palm-down, palm-up, and self-touch cues, which convey mainly emotion, mime cues also express narrative thinking, relationships among objects, and the association of ideas. In this regard, mime cues resemble the spoken words they so often accompany.

Application point. Used sparingly, mime cues lend authority, contribute to visual understanding, and add drama to key speaking points.

Evolution. Mimicking complex sequences of acts--demonstrating the body movements used, e.g., to make stone tools, build brush shelters, and topple trees--mime cues represent an advanced, conceptual form of nonverbal communication. Given in serial order, miming may have been our species' first step on the intellectual path leading to nonverbal narrative, the precursor of the verbal sign and vocal languages used today.

Semantics. 1. In a conversation about throwing a baseball, we may mime the motion with our hands. 2. Mime cues depict a. relationships among objects (e.g., "closer than," "as big as," "heavier"), b. attributes (e.g., "flat," "long," "rounded"), and c. action sequences (e.g., "I pick up snow," "form a snowball," and "throw it at you"). 3. A typical mime sign is the walking-figure, used to mimic the body's rhythmic, strolling gait.

RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. In the literature on nonverbal communication, mime cues have been called illustrators (Ekman and Friesen 1969). 2. Of the eight kinds of illustrator gestures defined by Ekman and Friesen (1972), pictographs (i.e., drawing a picture in space with the hands) most closely resemble mime cues.

E-Commentary: "I am most interested in your nonverbal dictionary as I am engaged in writing a book on word usage. I have raised a couple of points in my book that I would like to pass along. These are both instances where modern verbal communication has stimulated nonverbal communication. First is finger quotes, where the person delivering the message indicates a quotation -- literally or 'ironically'--by holding up two fingers on each hand, representing the two strokes of the quotation mark. The whole body goes into delivering finger quotes, the shoulders, the eyebrows, mouth, arms, chest. That such a minor bit of technical punctuation should be transformed into expressive body language strikes me as odd. Second is telephone talking, where the three middle fingers are folded in and the hand is held up as if the thumb and pinkie were the receiver and transmitter of a telephone." --Tom Parmenter (6/12/01 8:28:48 AM Pacific Daylight Time)

Neuro-notes I. To mimic an act such as, e.g., changing a lightbulb, mime cues use the same brain modules to move the same muscles as the physical activity itself. Thus, neurologically, swinging a bat is nearly the same as gesturing the act of batting without using the bat itself. Computer imaging studies show that mentally rehearsing an activity involves the same brain areas, as well (Sirigu, et al. 1996:1564). 1. Mime cues engage many areas of our cerebral neocortex, as well as evolved sub-regions of our basal ganglia and cerebellum. 2. Asked to pantomime the use of an object (e.g., a screwdriver), we orient our hand toward the imagined object's target (i.e., the screw). Important in the ability of right-handers to use such transitive mime cues is the left supplementary motor neocortex (Watson et al. 1992:685-86). 3. Increased regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) in this region ". . . occurs only when movements have an extrapersonal [i.e., transitive, rather than intrapersonal (as in giving a military salute)] frame of reference" (Watson et al. 1992:686).

Neuro-notes II. Miming in temporal order and tracing shapes in space involve a highly evolved area of our neocortex's parietal lobe. The posterior parietal's left side is specialized for language. Its right side helps us process relationships among objects in space, along with information about the position of our hands and our motivational state, all at the same time. 1. The right posterior parietal helps us perform and perceive complex gestures, and recognize complex objects placed in our hand, unaided by vision (Ghez 1991B:623). 2. "The right parietal lobe is specially concerned in the handling of spatial data and in a non-verbalized form of relationship between the body and space" (Eccles 1989:197). 3. As it integrates arriving visual, spatial, auditory, and tactile information, our parietal cortex receives emotional input from the cingulate gyrus of the mammalian brain. The parietal lobe then directs our body movements for gesture (and our tongue movements for speech) through fiber links to premotor areas of our brain's frontal cortex and lateral cerebellum (Ghez 1991B:623). 4. Mime cues are produced by nerve impulses traveling down the lateral corticospinal tract. This evolutionary recent pathway channels the fine-motor control of our finger and wrist muscles required by the mime gesture.

Neuro-notes III. Mirror neurons: Mime cues may not register in mirror neurons: "In two baseline conditions, the firing of the cells was measured for observation of grasping and of grasp pantomime. As expected, mirror neurons fired for grasping observation but not for observation of the pantomime." (Source: Iacoboni, Marco (2009). "Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons," Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 60, pp. 653-70.)


YouTube Video: Can you spot the mime cues in this three minute video?

Copyright 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)