See also Headshake

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)



Ancient body part. 1. Nonverbally, an expressive unit consisting of the head and trunk (without the face, shoulders, arms, hands, legs, or feet). 2. Those muscles connecting the skull, spine, and ribs. 3. The "primal body," resembling the primordial feeding tube, from which the human form evolved ca. 500 m.y.a.

Usage: Movements and postures of the body wall (see, e.g., BODY-BEND, BODY-SHIFT, and BOW) are a. more basic, b. more trustworthy as cues, and c. less subject to conscious manipulation or control than are other body movements (e.g., of the fingers, hands, legs, and feet) and postures. The muscles, nerves, and movements of the body wall resemble those of the first vertebrates ever to swim in Nonverbal World, the jawless fishes (see AQUATIC BRAIN & SPINAL CORD).

Anatomy. On the basis of function (rather than mere convention), anatomists divide the human skeleton into primary and secondary elements (Horne 1995). The basic distinction between an axial (i.e., skull, spine, and ribs) and appendicular (i.e., pectoral and pelvic girdles, and limbs) skeleton is reflected in our nonverbal communication, as well. As expressive cues, movements of the body wall are more fundamental as mood signs than are our hand, arm, and leg motions.

Evolution. Before faces and limbs, there was the body wall. Its skeletal muscles were designed to move the body from one place to another. Sinuous waves of contraction bent the body wall, producing the swimming motions that took animals a. toward food and mates, and b. away from enemies. Undulations moved from the head to the tail, and laterally from side-to-side. (N.B.: The ancient body wall bent the backbone forward [ventral flexion], and backward [dorsal flexion] as well [Kent 1969].)

Observation. In a business meeting (where feelings run high), the most truthful gestures come not from bodywall the limbs but from the torso. Isolating on unconscious locomotion movements (i.e., on sideward, forward, and backward bending motions), as bodies unwittingly align, approach, avoid, or repel one another, reveals where colleagues truly "stand" around the conference table. From the jawless fishes of Ordovician seas to the predatory sharks of Wall Street, messages of the body wall are much the same.

RESEARCH REPORTS. 1. Epaxial muscles, which extend from the base of the head to the tip of the tail, dorsal to the transverse processes, include the longissimus, iliocostalis, and transversospinal groups, and the intervertebral muscles. "Epaxial muscles in tetrapods perform the same primary function as in fishes--side-to-side and dorsoventral flexion of the vertebral column" (Kent 1969:218). (Epaxial muscles also help to move the head.) 2. Regarding hypaxial muscles: ". . . in the majority of tetrapods the muscles of the body wall are used chiefly to compress the viscera and to operate the ribs for respiration" (Kent 1969:220).


Copyright 1999, 2000 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)


Posture. To contract muscles of the primitive body wall, causing the spinal column to tip forward, sideward, or backward from standard anatomical position.

Usage: As expressive cues, body-bend (i.e., axial-skeleton) postures are more fundamental as mood signs than are leg and arm (i.e., appendicular) postures. Bending the spinal column away from the person seated beside oneself at a conference table, e.g., is a reliable—and wholly unconscious--sign of disagreement, disliking, or shyness. (See BODY SHIFT.)

Anatomy. Bending motions of the head and trunk are neurologically "simple" as signs. Unaffected, unintended, and unconscious, they are among the most reliable indicators of mood. Bowing, for instance-flexing the spinal column forward (ventrally)--is a protective response which also shows submissiveness and lowered social status. (N.B.: Even without a formal tradition of bowing [e.g., such as that of the Japanese] we may still tip our head and bend our spinal column forward when entering a superior's office doorway. Rearing, on the other hand-extending the spine backward [dorsally]--conveys arrogance and disdain [see HEAD-TILT-BACK].)

Culture. In southern Italy, the buttocks thrust—in which the stiffened (extended) upper body bends forward and the buttocks thrust backward, toward another person-is a sign of "obscene disdain" (Morris 1994:16). According to Morris, "This simple gesture is essentially an excretory insult, with the message 'I defecate on you'" (1994:16).

Evolution. Our body began as a simple tube, with a mouth at the front end to take in food, and a vent at the rear to eliminate waste products. Among the oldest body movements were those for locomotion. Muscles of the body wall contracted to produce rhythmic sideward bending motions. These oscillatory swimming movements took animals toward food or mates, and away from harm.

Neuro-notes. The first side-to-side oscillations were wired into paleocircuits of the aquatic brain & spinal cord. They appeared as alternating movements of the body's right and left sides. Extremely primitive, the same spinal circuits enable us to walk, swim, and dance today.


Copyright 1999, 2000 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies) Detail of drawing (Peck 1951:32; copyright Oxford University Press)



Like a marionette, Jimmy's body obeyed an unnatural yet coherent set of physical laws all their own. Alternating contractions and expansions, tau.tness dissolving into jangling looseness, his body seemed to operate on hinged joints held up from a point beneath the nape of his neck, his psychological springs like the shade too tightly wound. --Elia Kazan, commenting on actor James Dean (Dalton 1984:53-4)

Standard. 1. An arbitrary position of the body used to define movements as deviations from the standard it defines. 2. An unusual posture, suggestive of humility or supplication, in which the body stands upright with arms extended by its sides, palms rotated forward, and feet resting flat upon the floor.

Usage: Myriad joints in our hands, arms, feet, legs, shoulders, pelvis, and spine make the possible number of body movements and gestures incalculably immense. Thus, in recording an observation, anatomical position is useful as a schematic device for description. Movements away from its standard may carry information as signs.

Anatomy. "Close inspection reveals it [anatomical position] as an energy consuming position, seldom actively adopted and involving some scapular rotation and adduction, full lateral rotation of the humerus, direct mediolateral disposition of the elbow joint's axis, full supination of the forearm and hand and with the pollex [thumb] laterally placed!" (Bannister 1995:15).


Literature. ". . . in the blurred circles of light . . . appeared a chin upturned, two closed eyelids, a dark hand with silver rings, a meager limb draped in a torn covering, a head bent back, a naked foot, a throat bared and stretched as if offering itself to the knife." --Joseph Conrad (Lord Jim)

Media. Few of us ever use this unnatural posture. However, in the 1951 movie, An American in Paris, Gene Kelly waited in anatomical position below a fountain for his dance partner, Leslie Caron, to return to his side. With his hands in the palm-up position, Kelly's humble "open" posture invited her to approach. The anatomical posture is seen on TV in NFL football games, as well, in players who are accused of pass interference.

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