The power of posture

12 October 2016

This year’s Bloomsbury Festival’s theme is language. Find out more about our upcoming weekend of hands-on creative activities and thoughtful conversations exploring how we communicate through posture, gesture and facial expression, as Nelly Ekström explores the power of posture.

 L0031951 Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org BELL, Sir Charles {1774-1842} Charles Bell, Essays on the anatomy of expression in painting, London: Longman, 1806. Page 142 - Wonder / Fear / Astonishment. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
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An overt example of body language: wonder, fear, or astonishment from ‘Essays on the anatomy of expression in painting’.

I’ve been paying extra attention to the people around me lately. Noticing the way they stand; how they hold their heads and move their hands. Our bodies are constantly sending out information about what we are thinking and feeling; our brains are equally busy interpreting those messages from other people.

Most of this happens on a subconscious level and we react and adapt without being aware of what’s happening or why. After looking into a lot of research about body language, I can’t help but analyse the raised eyebrows, crossed legs or hands on hips I see around me. I’m much more aware of my own body language: my body can communicate how I’m feeling even when I’m not necessarily aware of those feelings myself.

The theme of Bloomsbury Festival 2016 is language. Wellcome Collection will offer a series of talks, events and interactive activities to get involved in over that weekend focussing specifically on body language at our Speaking with your body weekend.

Only about 7% of what we communicate to one another comes from the meaning of the actual words we say. 38% is para-verbal communication, which is everything else you do with your voice: your accent, pitch, how fast you talk and any other sound you make like smacking, clicking, giggling or sighs. The remaining 55% is communicated through how you move and position your body and face.

Some parts of your body are more communicative and expressive than others. We pay most attention to the face in our interactions with others. Join Dr Eva Krumhuber from University College London to investigate how our faces express emotion and participate in an experiment to see if you can tell a genuine smile from a faked one.

 L0071892 p. 151, 24 hand gestures, from Chirologia... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Chirologia: or the naturall language of the hand. Composed of the speaking motions, and discoursing gestures thereof. Whereunto is added Chironomia: or, the art of manuall rhetoricke. Consisting of the naturall expressions, digested by art in the hand, as the chiefest instrument of eloquence, by historicall manifesto's, exemplified out of the authentique registers of common life, and civill conversation / ...By J. B. Gent. Philochirosophus 1644 Chirologia: or the naturall language of the hand. Composed of the speaking motions, and discoursing gestures thereof. Whereunto is added Chironomia: or, the art of manuall rhetoricke. Consisting of the naturall expressions, digested by art in the hand, as the chiefest instrument of eloquence, by historicall manifesto's, exemplified out of the authentique registers of common life, and civill conversation / J. B. Published: 1644. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
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Chirologia: or the natural language of the hand.

We also pay attention to people’s hands when they talk. Some hand gestures have become so charged that they’ve become symbols, carrying a meaning far beyond what they communicate in the moment. Artist Isobel Manning will be exploring this subject in ‘Creative Hands’, were you’ll be given the opportunity to participate and sculpt your own gesturing hand.

Hands can also be used for communication in a very conscious and straightforward way, like in sign language. Translator and tutor Russell Aldersson will be leading British Sign Language taster sessions where you learn the basics of BSL. There will also be a BSL tour of the Medicine Man gallery, led by deaf historian John Wilson, which will be accompanied by English voiceover.

Your body language is a mixture of many different kinds of human physical behaviour. It communicates who you are to the world around you. It’s a product of who you are as an individual and the time and place you live in. But basic body language is something you share with every living human in the world, and with a large part of the animal kingdom as well. Studies have even shown that people who were born blind use the same kind of basic body language, which proves that this basic body language is not constructed socially or culturally, but something that is written into the innate core of human behaviour.

During the Speaking with your body weekend you can help re-animate a film from Wellcome’s archive of moving images, featuring a vast range of body language, both subtle and not so subtle. Join Dan Brown from Mash Cinema to colour and collage your own individual frames, and witness the augmented film take shape over the weekend. See the video below for a taste of Dan’s previous work with us.

If you feel comfortable and fairly in control of a given situation, you are likely to stand up straight, let your arms fall to your sides and stand with your legs a bit apart. You can relax; you don’t feel the need to protect yourself and you can take up as much space as you need. If you are feeling insecure you tend to do the opposite: you protect the soft and sensitive areas of your body by crossing arms and legs, hunching your back, bending your chin down or covering your neck with your hands.

 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Illustration of cat terrified at a dog from Chapter V Special Expressions of Animals 1872 The expression of the emotions in man and animals / Charles Darwin Published: 1872. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
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Illustration of cat terrified at a dog from Darwin’s ‘The expression of the emotions in man and animals’.

If you are feeling threatened and insecure you shrink down and take up as little space as possible. When you get aggressive and defensive, you want –subconsciously- to show how big and strong we are, to convince everyone around that you are dominant. This kind of behaviour can be seen in the animal kingdom; think about cats arching their backs when they feel threatened or tucking their tails between their legs when they’re submissive.

Body language as a field of research is developing rapidly. For the last ten years or so there has been an emerging field in psychology called ’embodied cognition’. Looking back, the traditional approach to body language in cognitive science was based on the idea that whatever happened inside the brain would eventually extend out to the rest of the body and affect its behaviour. Research into embodied cognition has established that what was believed to be a one-way communication between body and brain is in fact a two-way communication.

When your body language changes, your brain gets a message that something has changed and adapts by sending out the hormones and chemicals that will be most functional in this new situation.

How your body language affects your own body and brain, and how that can change the way you think and feel, is the subject of my own contribution to the program. If you want to know more about this, and find out if the superwoman pose can give you a better start to the day, join me for the discussion The Power of Posture.

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The Speaking with your body weekend takes place at Wellcome Collection 22 – 23 October 2016.

Nelly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.