The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

NonVerbal World

I am not yet so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of the earth. . . . --Samuel Johnson (Dictionary)

Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way. --John Milton (Paradise Lost, Book XII; 1667)

Concept1. A domain of ancient socialemotional, and cognitive signs, established millions of years before the advent of speech2. A usually hidden, sensory dimension apart from that which is defined by words3. An often unconscious medium, between reflex and reason, governed by the oldest parts of our vertebrate brain (see NONVERBAL BRAIN).

Good place. Nonverbal World is a landscape without language, billboards, or signposts, a realm without writing or symbols of any kind. It is a place where information consists ofcolors, shapes, aromas, and natural sounds--untouched by narration. This is the unspoken world we seek on mountaintops and island retreats, i.e., the good place apart from words.

Usage: We reside in a world of words, but still make many of our most important decisions about life and living as if we had never left Nonverbal World: 1. We do not need words, e.g., to define a kiss, decode an Armani suit, or decipher new car smell; these depend on ancient signals from the wordless past. 2. Even technical knowledge is transmitted throughnonverbal apprenticeships, in which we watch and do rather than read a manual. 3. We choose our vehicles, homes, and mates, e.g., on nonverbal grounds, and select wardrobes based on clothing's look and feel. 4. Many scientists (the most notable being Albert Einstein) think in visual, spatial, and physical images rather than in mathematical terms and words. (N.B.: That the theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, used an arboreal term to picture the cosmos [i.e., affirming that the universe "could have different branches,"] is a tribute to his [very visual] primate brain.)

Literature. "He went from the fields into a thick woods, as if resolved to bury himself. He wished to get out of hearing of the crackling shots which were to him like voices." --Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage

Origin. Nonverbal World originated ca. 3.5 billion years ago with the earliest known life forms, blue-green algae (i.e., cyanobacteria), living in shallow-water communities known asstromatolites. Voiceless, eyeless, unable to touch or hear, the first residents of Nonverbal World communicated chemically, through the medium of the molecule (see AROMA CUE).

Present day. Nonverbal World is the hidden place off the written transcript, where meaning lies not in vocabulary but in unspoken signals and cues. As anthropologists explore alien cultures and archaeologists unearth the past, we may seek our roots in a paleontology ofgesture. Through spinal cord paleocircuits and cranial nerves, gestures recite an ancient wisdom which languages and literature fumble to explain today.

Observations1. To see Nonverbal World on TV, mute the sound (gestures and body movements become clearer). 2. To hear emotion on the phone, listen with your left ear (theright brain responds to feelings and moods). 3. To feel the smoothness of silk, flannel, and flesh, touch with your left hand (the right sensory strip is more emotional than the left [in right-handed people; the reverse is (partly) true in lefties]). 

Evolution I. For ca. one-half-billion years, our vertebrate ancestors defined reality without uttering a phrase. The early residents of Nonverbal World dealt with each other and with great issues of the day apart from linguistic concepts or names. Though speechless, Nonverbal World was filled with whispering winds and flowing waters, rhetorical thunder, and the calls of wild things. It bustled with movement, percolated with aromas, and bristled with feathers and fur. Constant comment was heard eons before words arrived.

Evolution II. Late in Nonverbal World's prehistory, the first words were spoken, marking the birth of a new conceptual order based on language. Spoken language emerged ca. 200,000 years ago as the dominant verbal medium of our species, Homo sapiens. But a price was paid for speaking, as words and the knowledge for which they stand estranged human beings from Nonverbal World. As ever larger areas of our brain specialized for speaking and listening (see HUMAN BRAIN), attention shifted away from the sensory reality our ancestors knew to a separate reality based on speech.

Evolution III. In our mind's eye, words have more meaning than what they name. Indeed, it may not be an exaggeration to say that language has taken over our conscious brain. For not only does talk stimulate the brain's largest speech areas--Broca's and Wernicke's--it excites other regions of the neocortex (e.g., "wide areas in the frontal and parietal lobes" [Eccles 1989:89]), as well, and the brain stem (with its incredible tangle of cranial nerves). Thus, hearing, saying, or seeing a word dominates attention by neurologically engulfing our mind.

Primatology. "With regard to the vocalizations of these animals [wild baboons], it is notable that many hours of the day are spent in almost complete silence" (Hall and DeVore 1972:158).

Space. Nearing completion of their five-month mission in orbit (from March to August 2001), international-space-station residents Yuri Usachev and Jim Voss "are yearning for the smells and sounds of nature" (Anonymous 2001J). 

Neuro-notes. Nonverbal World gradually came to be known as nerves evolved to grasp its features. The oldest chemical and tactile senses enabled early creatures to know the landscape--and to smell, feel, and "taste" one another's presence in Nonverbal World. (N.B.: A great deal of our nonverbal communication--from the colognes we buy to our footwear--is still about presence today.)