Nonverbal Cues

Most of my [design] work really involves geometry--simple geometric structures to perform a function. So I'll start with a geometric pattern in my mind . . . . --Lyndon Burch, inventor (Petroski 1992:178)

Process. 1. The act of gaining knowledge or skills apart from language, speech, or words. 2. The extralinguistic transmission of cultural knowledge, practices, and lore.

Usage: A great deal of knowledge--from using computers to sailing a boat--is gained by watching, imitating, or practicing the body movements of someone who knows. In diverse "nonverbal apprenticeships" the only vocal input may be, "Watch me." (English "apprentice" comes from the 7,000-year-old Indo-European root word ghend-, to grasp with the hands, seize, take.)

Fundamental knowledge. Through a panoply of voiceless messages from Nonverbal World, we gain fundamental knowledge and experience about the business of life and living. Today, even the most technical knowledge may be transmitted through nonverbal apprenticeships, in which students watch and do rather than read a manual.

Nonverbal directions. In airports, shopping malls, and theme parks, and on the highway systems linking them, international graphic symbols--nonverbally, and in a pictorial format--are used to show people where they are and where they need to go (see ISOTYPE).

Nonverbal narratives. 1. "Early pictorial narratives. With Spanish Levantine rock art (dating to 11,000 B.P. [before present]), ancient sign artifacts begin to show a quantum leap both in complexity and information content in scenes representing hunters, singly and in groups, associated weapons, clothing, gender signals, social behaviors, and complicated juxtapositionings of human beings with one another and with prey animals. Thus begins pictographic narration--story telling, dramatization--showing consequences of actions, portraying life-and-death encounters" (Givens 1982:162). 2. "Semiotic principles of the narrative, the use of signs to chronicle events from beginning to end, and to relate causes with outcomes, become a strong theme in human recordings from this period forward" (Givens 1982:162).

Practice I. 1. Some nonverbal learning involves the practice-makes-perfect principle of repetition, e.g., of repeating a golf swing, a baseball pitch, or a balance-beam routine. Repeated swinging, throwing, and jumping target the cerebellum rather than speech areas of the cortex. 2. "The process that improves motor performance through practice is called motor learning" (Lisberger 1988:242). 3. "The vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) is a simple movement that has been used to investigate the neural basis for motor learning [hypothetically guided by output from the cerebellar cortex of the flocculus, through VOR brain-stem pathways] in monkeys" (Lisberger 1988:242).

Practice II. 1. "Motor learning can be defined as a set of neural processes associated with practice that lead to changes in performance and capabilities" (Flash 1997:1612). 2. "The picture of motor learning that emerges from the book [Bloedel, Ebner, and Wise 1996] is one of a highly distributed system, comprising several brain structures and interconnected neural networks" [including "cortical regions, the cerebellum, the basal ganglia, and various brainstem nuclei"] (Flash 1997:1612).

Shape. In Bali, dance teachers grasp and physically mold a student's fingers to choreograph the proper hand shape (Bateson and Mead 1942).

Show. Learning to sail a boat by reading a manual is far less efficient than watching an experienced sailor pilot his or her craft. Knowledge is most efficiently transmitted through a combination of verbal and nonverbal means.

Neuro-notes I. Nonverbal learning takes place both cortically and subcortically. In the latter case, the basal ganglia's new wing, known as the neostriatum (caudate nucleus and putamen), may be used for motor learning by an Olympic athlete to master complex body movements on the balance beam.

Neuro-notes II. A December 1999 study by Johns Hopkins researchers, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, found differences between men and women in a nonverbal part of the brain thought to be responsible for our abilities to a. estimate time and speed, b. visualize objects in 3-D, and c. solve math problems. The scientists report that the inferior parietal lobule (IPL; part of the cerebral cortex [on both sides of the brain, above ear-level]) is significantly larger in scientists. (N.B.: The IPL is known to have been particularly impressive in Albert Einstein's brain.)

Neuro-notes III. Researchers have recently found a role for the cerebellum in multi-joint body movements; the cerebellum ". . . predicts and adjusts for the multiple forces on a limb during a complex movement, including those propagating from one joint to another. If a person picks up a hammer, say, the cerebellum will activate the extra muscle force needed to operate the arm under the new physical conditions. It also controls the relative timing of various muscle contractions to ensure the speed and accuracy of a maneuver, so that when a person performs an act such as eating, the fork enters the mouth and not the eye" (Wickelgren 1998:1588).

Neuro-notes IV. Mirror neurons: Mirror neurons play an important role in young children's learning. Consider, e.g., Pier Francesco Ferrari's abstract for the 2012 conference on "Mirror Neurons: New Frontiers 20 Years After Their Discovery": "Learning processes are critical to shape and configure mirror neuron properties during ontogeny."

Neuro-notes V. Mirror neurons: The firing of mirror neurons may be enhanced through learning: "This idea is . . . supported by neuroimaging studies that purport to show that mirror neuron activity varies as a function of the observer's expertise. Calvo-Merino et al. [91] showed that ballet and capoeira dancers observing actions they were trained to perform showed greater activ- ity in premotor and parietal areas. Similarly, Haslinger et al. [92] showed similar effects for piano players observing piano playing. It's also been shown that familiarity (which presumably involves enhanced sensorimotor activation) activates premotor cortex more than non-familiar actions [33]." [Source: Pineda, Jaime A. (2008). "Sensorimotor Cortex as a Critical Component of an 'Extended' Mirror Neuron System: Does it Solve the Development, Correspondence, and Control Problems in Mirroring?" Behavioral and Brain Functions, 4:47 (Web document: [accessed March 1, 2013])].


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