If we look at a little girl carrying her hand in front of her mouth, looking mischievous, we sense that she has probably done a prank or told a lie. If, on the other hand, she points her index finger at her cheek after she has tasted something, we think she has eaten something good.
Body language is a type of non-verbal communication in which the body communicates the message and can be a source of valuable information about another person. By observing a gesture or the posture it assumes during the conversation or in a specific situation, it is possible to understand, with a certain approximation, the intentions, inner states and motivations of our interlocutor, for example, how he reacts to our presence, our speeches, our communicative movements.
On a neuroscientific level, researchers have investigated the neural bases of understanding body language, i.e. which brain networks are activated in this type of non-verbal communication. The most advanced research, by a group of Italian scholars led by Barbara Tomasino, an Italian researcher specialized in Germany with resonances at various magnetic fields, currently scientific responsible for the Friulian Pole of IRCCS Medea tried to test different scientific hypotheses.
The latest study, published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills (Understanding Body Language Does Not Require Matching the Body’s Egocentric Map to Body Posture: A Brain Activation fMRI Study, First Published September 19, 2019), is the result of the work of IRCCS Medea of San Vito al Tagliamento in collaboration with the Azienda San Vito Universitaria Integrata di Udine and the University of Udine.
The study is based on a 3-tesla functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment involving 20 healthy adult volunteers. They were shown images representing body postures, such as those taken by the girl in the previous examples. However, observing the same images, but at different times, the volunteers were guided to perform two tasks: in the first, they had to pay attention to the underlying meaning of the images presented, while in the second, it was important to report the position assumed by the hands (in front of the mouth or on the cheeks?).
“Our results indicate that reading body language recruits areas involved in the elaboration of abstract concepts, in the understanding of the mental states of others and in the theory of mind”, explains Barbara Tomasino, commenting on the data collected during the experiment.
During the first task, which requires decoding the meaning of a posture, a network of brain areas (between the temporal and frontal lobes) involved in the understanding of other people’s emotions is activated, while the sensorimotor areas containing information from one’s own body are not activated. Otherwise, during the second, positional task, areas involved in the representation of the Body Structural Description (BSD) are activated.
Beyond the purely speculative aspects, it is expected that future advances in such research may have a positive impact on the rehabilitation of subjects with various communication difficulties.