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Human Communication as a Primate Heritage

Instructor: Anne Zeller

Lecture Six: Socialization Process in Non Verbal Communicative Gestures

In studying language and gesture development it seems clear that comprehension comes before production. Babies even a few months old will use eye gaze to note what is of interest to them, whether it is by directional looking or pupil enlargement. It has been claimed (Lock 1993) that before 9 months infants are pre-communicative -- that is their movements and cries are received as containing information by their caregivers, without it being an intention to communicate. Yet it seems clear that different patterns of response to crying can shape the frequency, nature, intensity and response level of the vocalization. As far as non vocal responses are concerned, by six months of age, infants can compose two objects into a set, and do so with higher frequencies than young monkeys tested at comparable ages (Langer 1993).

Thus very young children do have some understanding of spatial relationships and respond to test situations with strategies of combination. As children reach their second year they can combine more than 2 items and can also construct and deconstruct sets and reconstruct them again. These abilities are evidence of cognitive elements present in the early development of humans. The Colobus and Macaque monkeys also tested for these abilities develop more slowly than the humans but by 22 months are not capable of reconstructing a set after it has been dismantled.

What does this tell us about facial gestures. It tells us that very young humans are very responsive to objects and social forces around them. By 10 months of age they can convey emotional states by such activities as arm waving, smiling, clapping and banging their feet (Zinober and Matlew 1986). They can also turn away in refusal of food, or refuse to make eye contact. Since much of the type of nonverbal communication that we have been discussing in these lectures is not occurring at the fore front of consciousness even in adults, these activities are not likely to be reinforced as "communicative" activities, however much they may be reinforced as indications of pleasure or social interaction.

However, at the same age of around ten months children also begin to use gestures as indicators of what they want or attempts to control the behaviour of another person. In these situations for example, the child may hold its arms up while vocalizing as a signal that it wants to be picked up. They may also begin to reach for things in an effort to get them, to nod in a positive indication and to hold the hand out with palm open when it wants something. At this age non verbal vocalizations often accompany some of these gestures. As the vocabulary improves words are often inserted into this sequence and interpreted as requests by the parents. These kinds of behaviours are often reinforced by caregivers who make an effort to respond to the child's request for a variety of reasons. As this interplay of gesture, vocalization and response occurs, especially if sets of objects or actions are being constructed and reconstructed and multiple related sets are formed -- cognitive constructions are being mapped and by "the end of their second year infants begin to map their cognitive constructions onto each other" (Langer 1993 pp 303). This is the beginning of the development of second-order hierarchic cognition which is past what seems to be achievable by Cebus and rhesus monkeys.

On the other hand monkeys do develop their abilities to communicate non-vocally from a very early stage of their lives. Infant macaques of only one week old are beginning to use the rhythmic opening and closing of the mouth that derives from a suckling response, in social situations. This behaviour is a pattern which neonates have for purposes of feeding, but in social groups a new mother is the focus of intense contact by other animals. Since lip smacks and teeth chatters are among the most frequent positive social gestures, newborns are exposed to both their mothers and her visitors exhibiting these gestures with great frequency and intensity. In my experience with infant barbary macaques, they will begin to look at approaching animals who are lip smacking and make efforts to open and close their mouths. An additional aspect of the gesture is the rhythmic hand clasp in which the approaching animal will often grab some part of the mother's body and squeeze it with her hand while lip smacking when she is close enough. This is usually seen for the most part in very intense lip smacking interactions, and may actually derive from an infants hand movements of spasmodic clutching seen while nursing is occurring. Infants of one week of age are not yet able to locomote on their own, and can barely stand by themselves and yet they begin to show aspects of a social gesture in correct context. As the infant grows older and continues this behaviour, approaching animals, and the mother orient to the infant and increase their lip smacking intensity, even if the ultimate focus of the meeting is maternal grooming and not the infant. Mothers also lipsmack to their infant and groom them, thus reinforcing the positive social nature of this gesture for infant monkeys.

In barbary macaques, males have also been observed using the lipsmack as a positive gesture to infants. Burton (1970) recounts observations of a male leader crouching on his ventrum with his head down at the infants level, but a few feet away, lipsmacking at the infant. The infant's response to this was to attempt to move towards the male. This was difficult because the infant's limbs were not yet coordinated enough to allow walking, so the result was the infant dragging itself with its arms towards the male. As the infant approached the male would either pick it up and lipsmack, or back up and encourage the infant to continue approaching by continuing to lipsmack to it. Thus the infant has the opportunity to learn that lipsmack can be associated with a friendly approach by another animal for purposes of grooming, or can accompany an approach by it to another animal.

Young infants who approach older ones and are threatened frequently do not appear to respond with avoidance until they have been pushed away to hit at a few times, or until such an interaction is terminated by the infant's mother retrieving it from the situation. Young primates seem to be treated so positively by older group members that their first experiences or rejections seem incomprehensible to them. These remarks are derived from my current investigations of adult infant interaction in Macaca fasucularis, the crab-eating macaque. I have been investigating responses towards infants of different ages by males by mothers and by females who are not the infants' mother.

The negative behaviours by wild males do not usually begin until nearly 10 weeks of age, and consist mainly of 'threat' and "look at" -- which could be considered a precursor of threat. The mothers and non-mother females begin negative behaviours early (week 2) and these include leave, restrain, threat and grab. There is a distinct difference between the frequency of positive and negative behaviours towards infants from the first two week of life on. The mothers and non-maternal females vary between 15 and 20% positive behaviours compared with 2% (mother) and 8% (non-mothers) of negative behaviour in colony infants, while the males show little behaviour of either type until 10 weeks. Thus the infant's early socialization is generally from the females with sit by, hold, and groom being the most frequent positive behaviours and leave, vocalize, and restrain/retrieve being the most frequent negative ones. The clearest message that seems to be sent to infants by these adults is that leaving and vocalizing are two behaviours indicating refusal to interact while sit by, hold and groom indicate positive interactions. Actual threats, hits, bites or other truly aversive behaviour is very rare indeed. As a result infants must learn to interpret quite subtle expressions of behaviour. As suggested above, infants don't seem to begin to respond to these subtle communications until they are actively chastised a few times, after which they begin to respond to more subtle cues.

The corresponding behaviours by infants show a high frequency of 'cling' which could be interpreted as a biological imperative, followed by 'sit by' 'play' and 'approach'. In other words the infants are learning that spatial contiguity is an important message in developing interaction patterns for their groups. Infants begin to express their preferences by their changing pattern of approach, leave and follow as they mature. These are a very basic level of communication, but are the beginnings of taking responsibility for their own interaction patterns up to 24 weeks of age.

As Tomassello (1990) says the social environment (of primates) exerts a powerful influence on learning both individually and socially even though actual behaviours are not being reproduced exactly from one individual to the one that is learning. This caveat functions to clarify the difference between actions that may be similar between group members and serve the same goal (emualtion) and actions which are a very exact copying of behaviour by one individual from another (imitation). According to Tomassello (and others), most copying of behaviour in primates is really emulation rather than imitation. I would argue that in the literature on gesture -- including pointing and learning sign language -- that I have read that children are acquiring their gestures also by emulation rather than imitation in that strict sense of the term. The communicative content is shaped by the interaction between the mother and infant by social behaviours being transformed into intentionally produced communication signals. This "conventionalization" between mothers and infants depends to a large extent on the mother's pattern and responsiveness to the infant's behaviour. In the discussion of developing pointing in children several possibilities are suggested as the basis for the gesture. These include reaching for, indicating or desire for and drawing attention to. In fact during ages 5 to 10 months from 60-100% of the infants' pointing are ignored by the mother. This changes at about month 10 when infants seem to begin to pay much more attention when the mother points to things. Mothers often respond to a point by referring to the object verbally ("yes what a nice doggie") without making a move towards it themselves. Thus the infant does not generally have a gesture to copy, or get possession of the object, -- which might be considered to be the objective if pointing was a modified reaching. Lock et al. conclude that the pointing gesture "is not derived from either indicative gestures or failed reaches" (Lock et al. 1990 pg 33). They see the action as becoming coordinated with a frame of interaction in which the pointing actually has referents that the mother will respond to. The infant is exploring the world around it and the mother responds in ways that make sense to her.

This type of communication ties into symbolic play, in which the infant represents the actions of people and objects and which begins to develop from 13 to 21 months, according to Lock (1993). Combinatorial skills in which words and motor actions contribute to pretense play also develop between 12 and 30 months of age. Thus the developing vocal abilities are supported by gestures which contribute functionally to the message without necessarily having truly symbolic input to it. Also social imitation which begins in the first year of life provides scaffolding needed for developing factors such as presentation of the infant's own facial features (Parker, et al 1994). Once the infant is able not only to give attention to another, but to recognize when attention is being directed towards it the infant can attend to the others attention in such a way that recognition of the self and others develops in parallel. This allows the young individual to notice and profit by sequences and orientation of behaviour seen in others.

This is a very important aspect when considering cultural differences between gesture patterns in different populations. Not only are the forms of the gestures different from culture to culture but factors considered appropriate to respond to also differ. The very early age that children begin to interact with the world around them is thus a very relevant aspect of how deeply and unconsciously human have internalized many of the relevant gestures that they respond to. These may not be gestures per se -- symbols with explicit meanings but the non-verbal body language which happens at a very subliminal level.

The quality of individual movement patterns, some of which can express anxiety or tension, can become established very early in life. The frequency of physical contact with infants under 3 months of age seems to affect the whole organism from breathing pattern to gastro intestinal tract to sleeping patterns and general responsiveness. Some research on handling in neonatal animals suggests that it is not even necessarily the quality of touching, but the stimulation of the cutaneous surface which is the relevant factor. The neonate nursing from the breast stimulates the mouth and nose, which influences breathing patterns. Long deep breaths coordinated with deep suckling seem to be more calming than rapid shallow breathing. This will influence later speaking patterns and maybe even susceptibility to respiratory ailments such as asthma and rhinitis. A pattern of deeper, calmer breathing will influence the physical expression and tension levels in the body, which provide nonverbal cues to an observor.

Gastro intestinal tract development and function can also be influenced by parental response patterns to infants. If infants are frequently held, rocked, and nursed their crying frequency seems to decrease by u to 70% which is particularly noticeable in colicky infants, who previous to the experiment had cued about 2 1/2 times as much as controls (Montagu, 1986). The cutaneous stimulation may well have an effect both by reducing tension and inducing relaxation which allows the intestine to work more efficiently, and also by direct influence of promoting the development of nervous response to external stimulation. Since the inside of the digestive tract from mouth to anus is really a part of the external surface of an individual, promotion of nerve sensor response in one part to pressure or stimulation may also promote maturation of nervous sensors in other parts of the skin such that they infants muscular and gladualar response to the pressure of food in the gut may be more prompt and efficient thus promoting the digestion of food, rather than letting it sit in the stomach and intestines where it can ferment and produce the gas which results in so much pain and fussiness of a colicky baby.

These basic physiological aspects of nerve and responses occur very early in development but may easily lay a foundation for patterns of interaction with the world. The types of messages sent are subliminal and undirected, but can certainly be perceived and responded to by others. Even when infants are interacting with each other or with adults, their tension levels, willingness to interact and level of organization will affect the outcome.

The learning patterns of children and young primates, both in and out of awareness are molded by parents and caregivers as well as others who provide information without the information value of the behaviours being explicit to caregivers. This is the kind of interaction characterized by King (1994) as information donation. However, just because the information is made available, does not ensure that it will be acquired by the infant. Humans who are very directed towards the success of learning use direct teaching, repeated exemplars and reinforcement to promote acquisition by children. Primates in most cases are much less directed but their infants do learn both by observation and experience. Monkey mothers may direct the infant's attention to signals being put forward by others in cases where, for example, an infant approaches another adult. If the one approached shows positive social behaviours such as lipsmacks, the mother may not intervene while if the other shows signs of arousal such as piloerection, threat stares or 'push away' they mother may go and retrieve the infant from the other's vicinity. This may serve to indicated to the infants the difference between positive and negative responses and the appropriate way to respond to each. A lot of acquisition of social skills in monkeys occurs during play with same aged animals in which infants get to practice the use of such relatively stereotyped gestures as the play face, and learn how to interpret the validity of such gestures expressed by others. They also acquire quite a lot of social finesse by trial and error as well as observation, correction and support.

The basic aspects of learning non-verbal communication skills may rest on physiological or hard wired foundations, but the physical maturation of the infant, its developing ability to cognitively organize the world, and above all its social experience, develop the structure of communication in culturally acceptable patterns whether the infant is primate or human. The purpose of this lecture is to reinforce that these learning patterns may not consciously be about communication but none-the-less serve a communicative function to a very profound degree.


Burton, F.D. (1970) "The integration of Biology and Behaviour in the Socialization of Macaca Sylvana of Gibraltar." In: Primate Socialization, ed. F.E. Poirier, Random House. New York, pp 29-62.

King, B.J. (1994) The Information Continuum. SAR Press. Santa Fe.

Langer, J. (1993) "Comparative Cognitive Development." In: Tools, Language and Cognition in Human Evolution. Eds. K.R. Gibson and T. Ingold. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. pp 300-313.

Lock, A. (1993) "Human Language Development and Object Manipulation: Their Relation in Ontogeny and its Possible Relivance for Phylogentic Questions." In: Tools, Language and Cognition. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. pp 279-299.

Lock, A, Young A., Service, V. and Chandler, P. (1990). "Some Observations on the Origin of the Pointing Gesture." In: From Gesture to Language in Hearing and Deaf Children. Eds. Voltera and C.J. Ertins. Springer-Verlag. New York. pp 42-55.

Montagu, A. (1986) Touching. 3rd ed. Harper and Row. New York.

Parker, S. Mitchell, R (1994). "Evolving Self Awareness." In: Self Awareness in Animals and Humans. ed. S. Parker, R. Mitchell and M. Boccia. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. pp 413-428.

Tomasello, M. (1990) "Cultural Transmission in Chimpanzee Tool Use and Signalling." In: Language and Intelligence in Monkeys and Apes eds. S.T. Parker and k. Gibson. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. pp 274-311.

Zinober, B and Martlew, M.(1986) "The Development of Communicative Gestures." In: Children's Single Word Speech. ed. M. Barrett. Chichester Wiley. pp 183-215.

copyright 1999 Anne Zeller
Send comments or question to Anne Zeller: azeller@artspas.watstar.uwaterloo.ca
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