The Psychology of Body Language –
Basic Neuropsychology Part 1

Home - Nonverbal Communication - Body language and Psychology

Part 1 & Part 2 (Neuropsychology) | Part 3 & Part 4 (Behaviorism) |  Part 5  & Part 6 (Emotional Psychology)

Hi and welcome to the series of articles that are all about looking underneath the hood of the concept we call "body language".

When we talk about body language we talk about human behavior. It's not only a "language" with the sole purpose to communicate with others, but an actual physical manifestation of our internal, emotional processes. 

And this is where psychology comes in - after all, it's all about understanding the human nature in a scientific way. This is exactly what I want to present here in these pages, to give you a taste of modern psychology and its findings, especially from the neuroscientific approach – the study of the brain. 

In most of the articles on the site we discuss certain gestures or expressions and their meanings and origin. Here I rather want to focus on the "hardware" - what happens in your brain and your body when you experience emotions, and why that causes you to act in the way you do.

Before we start, 2 important notes:

1. Will this new information improve your communication skills or self-image? Not likely. Just like it's not necessary to understand how the car works in order to operate it - you mustn't  know exactly what’s going on in your brain when you have a certain feeling.  

But, it doesn't mean that it's useless or boring , quite the opposite!  So if you put the utilitarian mindset aside I'm sure you'll have a good read.

2. Modern psychology is filled with enormous amounts of study and research, which is obviously much beyond the scope of this article . 

My aim here isn't to make you a brain expert, but to allow you a glimpse to the fascinating way our bodies and brains work. So keep in mind that most of the things I'll write are actually more complex (even much beyond my understanding), and I only elaborate when it's necessary.

So what exactly we're going to talk about?

1. In these first 2 parts – it's all about neuroscience. How the brain and your nervous system is structured, and how it relays signals to the rest of the body. The focus is to provide you with some biological and physiological background of the body, which I'll refer to in the next parts.

2. The following issue is about learning, especially conditioning. How we learn our behavior, what are conditions, habituation, and critical period. This part will shine light on how we acquire habits and personal quirks– body language shaped by experience.

3. The last part will be about emotions and feelings. What is the difference between them, and why we feel the way we do. We'll also see specific explanation to what happens in your body in times of anger, fear and stress.

Alright, let's start with some neuroscience 101:

Your Brain Owns It - or What's Neuroscience is all About

Before we actually start talking about science stuff, I want to clarify an important point regarding how brain researchers view the human nature.

You see, there are actually 2 points of view regarding what is "you", and your consciousness. 

The dualistic approach says that body and soul are separate things; your soul is the internal entity, your inner voice. And it's determines how you feel and think, your body is just the vessel for the soul.

The monistic approach concludes otherwise - there is no distinction, you cannot separate the physical form from the mental one - it's one and the same.

Image Source

Brain experts mostly put emphasis on the second approach, since "soul" or "mind" are spiritual concepts, which we have no hard evidence for - we cannot study them, you can't just find them under a microscope! 

But brain experts, through many experiments, now have a basic understanding of the brain and how it operates. There is much evidence in their findings that concepts we usually refer to as our personality or our internal "voice" - feelings, free will and consciousness can actually linked to activity and regions in the brain.

Of course, we cannot be cocky and declare that we know it all about how the machine called "human" works. No, it's a very complex and controversial theme, and there's still much more to discover. Neuroscientists believe and aim to learn as much as possible about the brain to help explain our nature.

I do not present it here to prove that one theory is better than the other or to say that there's no such thing as a soul. I only address it because if you want to understand neuroscience, you need to understand how it's viewpoint and the concepts it actually deals with.

You can read more about the philosophy of the mind here

Now that we have the right mindset, it's time to get the right tools... We can't talk about neuroscience without understanding their key terms, right? 

Electric cycles in my Head

Phew! With all the introduction now is over, let's get to the real stuff - How the brain controls our body.

We have 2 parts to it: the central nervous system (CNS) - which includes your brain and the nerves in your spinal cord. The second part is all that's left - the periphery nerves(AKA PNS), which, as their names suggest, are spread across the rest of your body.

The basic process of our interaction with our environment is based on some “input” (a stimuli) and our execution as an “output” - and it  goes something like this:

  1. You get signals from your environment through the sensory nerves in your periphery (smell, touch, sight...) 

  2. These nerves send signals back to the CNS, through the nerves in the spinal cord

  3. The nerves in your spine pass it along to your brain, to a designated sensory part that knows how to decode the signals you just received. 

  4. Once a signal is received in that certain part of the brain, it will relay further to other areas with other functions. It's a sort of a chain reaction in which many signals are processed and integrated together, and then a big picture is created.

  5. There is a part in your brain that's responsible for the big picture, it makes evaluations and create plans. This part involves mainly  the front of our brains and is called the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).

  6. The last step is execution, once you have the general plan and need to make a move - special motor-governing areas in your brain will send orders back to the periphery through motor nerves.

This whole process is happening all the time and with incredible speed. Your brain never truly rests either - even when you go to sleep, loops keep running and processes keep, well, being processed.

How do we transmit the signals through the nerves though?

It's a combination of 2 players - electricity and chemistry. When a signal is passing INSIDE the nerve it runs like a current, when it passes BETWEEN different nerves it does it by a specific chemicals. 

The electrical route is similar to a current running through a wire, only it has biological factors and it is called the Action Potential. How quick your reactions are, is a factor of how fast the information is run through the nerves and how many "nodes" are in between, until a return signal is shot back.

This is why reflexes are automatic and fast, for example. When reflex sensory nerve receives a stimuli - it doesn’t require additional processing in your brain, but it instantly activates the motor nerve responsible for a preset action as soon as you feel the stimuli.

Let's keep deeper into this

On the next part we continue with neuroscience where we'll examine the other component - the chemical one - which are hormones and neurotransmitters.

The psychology of body language – basic neuroscience – Part 2

You can return to the main section on what is nonverbal communication

Or return to homepage

Return to top

Copyright © 2012 - 2016

Disclaimer Privacy Policy