bodylanguageWhen we engage with somebody, we tend to see it as a relationship between two minds, but it is also a relationship between two bodies. We pick up what the other is feeling and vice versa; we tune into subliminal signals, like their facial expression, rate of breathing, involuntary movements, colour of the skin, sweating and even their bowel sounds. We respond to changes in posture, nuances of gesture. We can even tell whether a smile is genuine or not or whether sympathy is heartfelt. A lexicon of feeling is revealed on our faces and acted out in our bodies. In my callow youth, I thought I could ‘read whether a girl liked me by the colour of their ears – but I often got it very wrong.

These bodily signals are unconscious. We don’t think about them; they just happen. There is a direct line from the emotional brain to the body. Shame, desire, guilt, sadness, fear, anger, boredom, tiredness are all expressed in our face and the rest of our body. Without saying anything, we can feel whether we like or dislike somebody, whether we can trust them or not, whether we ‘fancy’ or desire them, whether we fear them and whether they irritate us.

And the feeling’s mutual. If we connect with someone, we tend to match our communications through mutual eye contact and facial expression (smiling, laughing, concern, sympathy, anger, fear, desire). We learn how to defuse anger or calm anxiety with a glance and a relaxed posture. Even when we cannot see our companion’s face, we can demonstrate the nature of our connection through our bodies. People who are attuned to each other unconsciously mimic each others posture and gestures, walk in step, and can match each others actions and movements like cooks, team mates, dancing partners or lovers. And as our bodies tune in to each other, so nervous synapses in our brain form, disconnect and re-form, changing our bodily repertoire moment by moment.

An intertwining of personal histories.

We start to learn how to be in infancy, a process of imprinting that utilises mirror neurones, special neurones that encode the expressions and actions of others and can reproduce them. Interactive regulation becomes auto regulation – the way a person is treated as a child becomes how they respond to cues and treat themselves and others as an adult. Transactional Analysis claims that patterns of relating are learnt, initially from our parents and close relatives, then from friends, teachers, people we admire and intimate partners. Like permanent memory traces or engrams, they encode how we interact with others and in different situations.

Emotions are exhibited through our bodies and only later expressed in language. We only have to glance at someone across a crowded room to know whether it feels safe to talk to them. Usually we can find the right words to express what we feel, but in some situations there is a dissociation between the two. Politicians can talk the talk, but the mismatch between what they say and their facial expression may tell us we cannot trust them.

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