The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

NonVerbal Cousciousness

For the first time in four billion years a living creature had contemplated himself and heard with a sudden, unaccountable loneliness, the whisper of the wind in the night reeds. Perhaps he knew, there in the grass by the chill waters, that he had before him an immense journey. --Loren Eiseley, The Immense Journey (1957) 

Concept. The state or condition of being aware--apart from the effects or influence of words--of one's own existence, environment, and sensations, i.e., of one's own self and place in Nonverbal World.

Usage: Approaching human consciousness from a novel perspective--i.e., from that of the nonverbal brain--promises to shed new light on the perennial, philosophic issue of mind. Our species's bias for speech has to date obscured the preverbal origins and underpinnings of consciousness.

Significance. Ironically, the feeling that something is real, true, and right comes not from the thoughtful speech areas and association modules of our neocortex, but from evolutionary older--and nonverbal--emotion centers of our limbic cortex (see MacLean 1990:17).

Word origin. The word conscious comes from Latin com-, com- + scire, to know.

CNS staff hypotheses to date1. A working idea is that our (self-) consciousness may have evolved from neural modules and circuits earlier adapted to childcare (see, e.g.,CINGULATE GYRUS). We somehow managed to turn our emotions and feelings for others inward and toward ourselves (see below, Neuroscience). 2. We're betting that consciousness is an emotion, rather than a byproduct of the thinking brain, and that human consciousness surely preceded linguistic expression. 3. Nonetheless, language does give an ability to talk about and explore this emotion. 4. The word "consciousness" itself, however, works to reify the concept, and diverts our attention from its nonverbal, emotional roots (see below, Zen). 5. Consciousness may be a "meta sense," i.e., an emotional sensation of a sensation (e.g., of an outer sense [e.g., smell, taste, sight, hearing, or touch] or of an inner sense [e.g., balance, pain, pleasure, digestion, or emotional feeling]).

Word substitution. Here's an exercise in critical thinking about nonverbal consciousness. For a few of the quotes below, substitute the words in {bracesfor the expert's words. Doing so may reveal new facets of consciousness.

Altered states1. "The common denominator [of altered states] often seems to be either sensory isolation (e.g., monastic life, an isolation tank, meditation [see below, Japanese tea ceremony], dreams) or sensory overload (e.g., repetitive chanting, Holy Roller revival meetings)" (Hooper and Teresi 1986:254). 2. "What this [the neurological effect of LSD] suggests is that the limbic system is stimulated while the cortex, whose function it is to analyze and make fine distinctions, is suppressed" (Cytowic 1993:128). 3. LSD makes our experience of, e.g., a color or body movement ". . . 'stick' at a detail of the perception, like a stuck phonograph needle, and this is what dominates the subjective experience" (Cytowic 1993:128-29).

Animal consciousness. "I feel that the play of young animals is a convincing criterion of consciousness, as also is curiosity, and the display of emotions, in particular the evidence of devoted attachment" (Eccles 1989:174-75).

Animal images. "Animal images woven into human consciousness form the vocabulary of our dreams and visions, our mythology, our attempts to understand and find . . . our place in the universe" (flyer distributed by the Zoological Society of San Diego, 1999).

Animal psychology. "Finally, the kinds of questions that emerge from the Nagel criterion--What is it like to be a bat, a dog, a dolphin?--are ominously reminiscent of the protracted arguments about the consciousness of ants and amoebas that caused so much trouble in psychology around 1900. Not that such "bat" questions are forever closed to scientific inquiry; but they certainly do not provide us with a modest, workable and consensus-building approach to the problem" (A Thoroughly Empirical Approach to Consciousness," Bernard J. Baars,Psyche1(6), August, 1994). 

Anthropology. 1. "We have no idea at present how the modern human brain converts a mass of electrical and chemical discharges into what we experience as consciousness" (Tattersall 2000:62). 2. "It is impossible to be sure what this innovation [leading toward consciousness] might have been, but the best current bet is that it was the invention of language" (Tattersall 2000:62). 3. "It was not in the nature of the Comanche to be [consciously] introspective. Nor was it in his nature reflectively to state his motives or ways of acting in formulae" (Wallace and Hoebel 1952:185).

Art. 1. "For each [Baumgarten and Kant] came to regard aesthetic consciousness as a significant and unitary element of human experience generally" (Flew 1979:6). 2. "Art is closely tied to metalinguistic awareness; the objects/feelings themselves can be conveyed by these depictions. The discovery of the linguistic self, the locus of intentional action, would lead to personal ornamentation and other indications of individuality . . ." (Foley 1997; for discovery of the nonverbal self, see WORDAuthor's note).

Biology IConsciousness first appeared in vertebrates ca. 200 m.y.a., in mammals, according to neurophysiologist John Eccles of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt [378:234].

Biology IIBy introspection {indigestionwe have access only to a limited amount of what is going on in our brains. --Francis Crick (CNS Note: We are not trying to be cute here, but only to point out that scholars--who are highly verbal creatures--often favor verbal modes of introspection over those available by nonverbal means, despite a possibility that consciousness itself may be nonverbal, i.e., may exist as a state of emotion or as a nonlinguistic feeling [see below, Philosophy II].)

Biology III. "We can speak of an animal as conscious when it is moved apparently by feelings and moods and when it is capable of assessing its present situation in the light of past experience and so is able to arrive at an appropriate course of action that is more than a stereotyped instinctive response" (Eccles 1991:173).

Biology IVNEW. "I believe that it is the result of an inherited human propensity to pay special attention to the actions of other people" (Young 1978:31). Author's note: This is reflected in, and adumbrated by, the worldwide linguistic use of personal pronouns, such as "you," "she," and "me," which open consciousness to ourselves and others.

Biology V. Francis Crick (Salk Institute) and Cristoff Koch (Cal Tech) study consciousness by looking at the neural correlates of vision{touch}.

Blindness and deafness I. "Once I knew the depth where no hope was, and darkness lay on the face of all things. Then love came and set my soul free. Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. Once I fretted and beat myself against the wall that shut me in. Now I rejoice in the consciousness that I can think, act and attain heaven. My life was without past or future; death, the pessimist would say, 'a consummation devoutly to be wished.' But a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living. Night fled before the day of thought, and love and joy and hope came up in a passion of obedience to knowledge. Can anyone who escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?" (Helen Keller, "Optimism," 1903)

Blindness and deafness II. "Intensely imitative and sensitive to all aspects of her environment that she could touch, taste or smell, she [Helen Keller] quickly learned to do household and kitchen chores and delighted in them" (Wills 1993:285).

Blindsight. Cortically blind people can "see" the location of a light flashed on a wall, with an accuracy of 80% (Restak 1994). This ability, which is entirely unconscious, is known as blindsight. It is made possible by vision centers of the midbrain called the superior colliculi. Blindsight has implications for the study of nonverbal consciousness. The feeling that "something or somebody" is present in a room, e.g., may be due to sensations received by similarly unconscious modules of the central nervous system. Another area of the brain known to work in the background, i.e., out of conscious awareness, is the hindbrain's cerebellum.

Classical science. How it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as a result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djin, when Aladdin rubbed his lamp. --Thomas Huxley

Color. "Isolated Neuroscientist in a black-and-white room knows everything about how the brain processes colors but does not know what it is like to see them. This scenario suggests that knowledge of the brain does not yield complete knowledge of conscious experience" (Chalmers 1995:81). 

Color redQ: "What, for example, could a complete map of the visual pathways ever tell us about the subjective redness of the color red?" (Loosemore 2000:10 [Scientific American]). A: "Loosemore does not have to accept my proposal, but the aim of my effort is clear: to understand not just how, say, the color red is mapped but also how we have a subjective perspective of redness" (Damasio 2000:10 [Scientific American]). [In the act of pointing at a bright red balloon, e.g., an excited young child shows mother his emotional response to the balloon and its color; see Zen and Neuro-notes III below.]

Coma & death. When does nonverbal consciousness cease? Presumably, when a. doll's-head eye movements cease; b. pupils do not react to light; c. there is no response to corneal stimulation; d. there is no eye deviation in response to ice-water irrigation of the tympanic membrane;e. there is no gag reflex; f. there is no cough reflex; g. there are no cranial-nerve-mediated motor responses to strong stimulation of the nail beds or supraorbital area; and h. there is no spontaneous breathing (Gray's Anatomy 1995, 38th Ed., p. 1011).

Evolution. "And standing thus [while making eye contact with a frog] it finally comes to me that this is the most enormous extension of vision of which life is capable: the projection of itself into other lives. This is the lonely, magnificent power of humanity. It is, far more than any spatial adventure, the supreme epitome of the reaching out" (Eiseley 1957:46).

Facial images. "Research shows that right in the delivery room an infant will pay attention to [i.e., become conscious of] a person's face or a picture of a face, and will follow its movement with his eyes" (Chase and Rubin 1979:66).

Hypnosis1. "And proofs are not wanting in hypnotic behaviour itself that the 'subliminal soul' is in reality only the 'animal soul' still present in man's mentality" (The Soul of the Ape; Marais 1969:148). 2. In human beings, ". . . certain characteristic attributes of instinctive mentality at once become clearly recognisable in hypnotic behaviour. The chief of these are: 1. Absence of consciousness. 2. Suggestibility. . . . . 3. Extreme sense-acuteness [see above, Altered states]. 4. High perfection of the 'place memory'" (Marais 1969:149). 3. In 1882, "Viennese physician Joseph Breuer, 40, discovers the value of hypnosis in treating a girl suffering from severe hysteria, pioneering psychoanalysis" (Trager 1992).

Immunology. "'How do you know who you are?' Rodney Langman asks his students. Langman, a staff scientist at The Salk Institute, is not bidding them to ponder existential philosophy. Rather, his inquiry is meant to stir up their minds about the workings of the immune system--the army within that protects each of us from invasion by pathogens" (Clancy 2000:17).

Japanese tea ceremony. Many cultures have devised ways for their members to periodically break the bonds of linguistic consciousness, distraction, and thought. The Japanese tea house, e.g., is designed as a nonverbal consumer product whose theme is an approximation ofNonverbal World: "Tea houses were a place for [wordless] concentration. The garden was and is not in view so the inhabitants will not be distracted. Guests go from a waiting lodge to a waiting bench both in the outer tea garden. This is where the host meets them. In the meantime they are able to absorb the beauty of the garden and prepare themselves spiritually for the tea ceremony" (Anonymous, N.D.:4).

Language1. "The use of the term 'forced observation' must not be construed to imply that a speaker of a language is conscious of being compelled to notice certain aspects of his environment. Most often he makes these observations naturally, almost unconsciously, and certainly with no feeling of constraint" (Henle 1958:383). 2. "In the case of the left [brain] hemisphere, consciousness is linked with language capacity"(Restak1994:127). 2. "Of all the characteristics that differentiate humans from their nonhuman cousins, the ability to communicate through the use of a sophisticated spoken language is, I believe, the most significant" (Goodall 1990:208).

Levels of consciousness. The five levels of consciousness used in the standard neurologic examination include a. alertb. lethargic (drowsy),c. obtunded (asleep), d. stupor (semicoma, can be aroused but returns to unconsciousness without strong stimulation), and e. coma (deep coma, cannot be aroused; Nolan 1996:24). 

LiteratureNot a word he [Captain Ahab] spoke; nor did his officers say aught to him; though by all their minutest gestures and expressions, they plainly showed the uneasy, if not painful, consciousness of being under a troubled master-eye. --Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1980 [1851]:130)

Media. "Kick a dog and you can be pretty sure that the next time it sees you it will associate you with being kicked," said [Gerald] Edelman [Neurosciences Institute, La Jolla]. "As a result, it may run away or bite you. It will not, however, sit there quietly and plot how to destroy your tenure as a professor." The latter ability, Edelman thinks, belongs only to human beings, and is due to a "higher-order consciousness." (San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 29, 1999, E-5)

Mind-body. "As to the mind-body problem, [Roger] Sperry defines consciousness as 'a holistic or emergent, functional property of high-order brain activity.' And that's about as elegant a definition as one can hope for" (Falk 1992:109). {Editorial comment: But where's the beef?}

Neanderthals. "We found that the two communities [Neanderthal and early Homo sapiens sapiens] were supported by different capacities for communication--verbal, visual and symbolic--and that this in turn affected their organization of campsites, their exploitation of the landscape, and their colonization of new habitats" (Stringer and Gamble 1993:219).

Neurobiology. There is no working definition of consciousness--or more accurately, there are hundreds of working definitions. --Terrence J. Sejnowski (Computational Neurobiology Lab, Salk Institute)

NeuropsychologyBut having reached that [higher level of] understanding [of the biology of consciousness], which we have not, I don't know if it will tell us much about the magic of consciousness, how and why we get something like self-awareness {happinessout of matter. --Larry Squires (University of California, La Jolla)

Neuroscience I (prefrontal cortex)Further, damage to our frontal areas can reduce any of us to an almost subhuman level of functioning, a kind of psychic limbo where we dwell in an eternal present, devoid of what I consider our most evolved mental ability: our capacity to empathize with {care forothers. --Richard Restak

Neuroscience II (split-brain experiments)1. "Our consciousness may be a single stream because it is the consciousness of our dominant hemisphere only" (Carter 1998:51). 2. "Or it could be that there are many streams of consciousness in each of us . . ." (Carter 1998:53).

Paralysis. "I gradually learned to live day by day, to block from my consciousness any thoughts about the final outcome of the illness, to repress from awareness any vision of the unthinkable" (Murphy 1987:25). 

Philosophy I. Suppose that there be a machine, the structure of which produces thinking, feeling, and perceiving; imagine this machine enlarged but preserving the same portions, so that you could enter it as if it were a mill. This being supposed, you might visit it inside; but what would you observe there? Nothing but parts which push and move each other, and never anything that could explain perception. --Leibniz

Philosophy II. Consciousness: "A term with two related philosophical uses: first, as for example, for Locke, in the sense of self-knowledge acquired by virtue of the mind's capacity to reflect upon itself in introspective acts analogous with perception; and second, in a broader modern sense, opposed to anaesthesia, designating what is held to be the general property of mental states" (Flew 1979:72-73). Would the pleasant "full" feeling after a meal count as an introspective act? (See, e.g., ENTERIC BRAINREST-AND-DIGEST.)

Philosophy III. Consciousness is the ultimate mystery, a mystery that human intelligence will never unravel. --Colin Tudge (Prof. of Philosophy, Rutgers)

Philosophy IV. "We laugh, therefore we are." (CNS staffers)

Physics. "At the atomic level, 'objects' can be understood only in terms of the interaction between the processes of preparation and measurement. The end of this chain of processes lies always in the consciousness of the human observer" (Capra 1977:126).

Primatology1. "Having opened a window onto nonhuman consciousness, we discover a mental landscape resembling our own. We find that other primates, at least, are capable of elementary logic, jokes, banter, deliberate misinformation, cajoling, deep sorrow, [and] rich communication" (Hooper and Teresi 1986:54). 2. ". . . it was proved, experimentally and beyond a doubt, that chimpanzees could recognize themselves in mirrors--that they had, therefore, some kind of self-concept" (Goodall 1990:21). 3. "Some chimpanzees love to draw, and especially to paint" (Goodall 1990:22).

Right brain, left brain. Studies agree that as nonverbal cues are sent and received, they are more strongly influenced by modules of the right-side neocortex (esp. in right-handed individuals) than they are by left-sided modules. Anatomically, this is reflected a. in the greater volume ofwhite matter (i.e., of myelinated axons which link nerve-cell bodies) in the right neocortical hemisphere, and b. in the greater volume of gray matter (i.e., of nerve cell bodies or neurons) in the left. The right brain's superior fiber linkages enable its neurons to better communicate with feelings, memories, and senses, thus giving this side its deeper-reaching holistic, nonverbal, and "big picture" skills. The left brain's superior neuronal volume, meanwhile, allows for better communication among the neocortical neurons themselves, which gives this side a greater analytic and intellectually narrower "focus" (see, e.g., Gur et al. 1980).

Robotics. A third generation of robots ". . . will learn very quickly from mental rehearsals in simulations that model physical, cultural and psychological factors. Physical properties include shape, weight, strength, texture and appearance of things, and how to handle them. . . . . The simulation would track external events and tune its models to keep them faithful to reality. It would let a robot learn a skill by imitation and afford a kind of consciousness" (Moravec 1999:135).

Sleep. For early 20th-century psychologist, William James, consciousness is what we lose when we fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Space. "A section of the [London taxi] cabbies' brains, called the hippocampus, became enlarged during the two years they spent learning their way around the vast, complicated metropolis" (Boyd 2000; see PRIMATE BRAIN, Climbing cues).

Synonyms. Nonverbally "known, supraliminal; aware, appreciative, cognizant (KNOWLEDGE); sensible, aesthetic or esthetic, passible (SENSITIVENESS); calculated, studied, premeditated (PURPOSE)" (Lewis 1978).

Time. "Mental chronometry can be defined as the study of the time course of information processing in the human nervous system" (Posner 1978:7).

Vision. "It can be postulated that in evolution the emergence of conscious mental experiences matched the evolution of the visual processing mechanism (see, e.g., FACIAL RECOGNITION, Neuroanatomy I & II), and that it was essential in guiding the behaviour of the animal" (Eccles 1989:175).

Zen. "So long as we merely talk about it, so long as we turn over ideas in our minds about 'symbol' and 'reality,' or keep repeating, 'I am not my idea of myself,' this is still mere abstraction. Zen created the method (upaya) of 'direct pointing' in order to escape from this vicious circle, in order to thrust the real immediately to our notice {eyes}" (Watts 1957:126-27).

RESEARCH RESULTS1. "Consciousness resists definition partly because it is so familiar" Restak1994:123). 2. "But the right [brain] hemisphere's abilities (the intuitive apprehension of geometrical properties, copying designs, recognizing faces, and reading facial expressions) clearly imply that some degree of consciousness, albeit a nonverbal one, must exist [alongside the left hemisphere's linguistic consciousness (see above, Language)]" (Restak1994:127).

Neuro-notes I. It is within the thalamus that a human's central nervous system first experiences a consciousness of incoming sensations, before they are re-examined, upstream, in the neocortex.

Neuro-notes II. As conscious creatures, we "can and do react with fear even though consciously we haven't the slightest idea what it is that is frightening us. Heightened 'startle responses,' sudden onsets of anxiety or even panic, personality characteristics like being 'hyper' or 'edgy'-these are everyday examples" (Restak1994:147).

Neuro-notes III. "Objective brain processes knit the subjectivity of the conscious mind out of the cloth of sensory mapping [e.g., of a seen object on the visual cortex]. And because the most fundamental sensory mapping pertains to body states and is imaged as feelings [the mammalian cingulate cortex is key for Damasio], the sense of self in the act of knowing emerges as a special kind of feeling--the feeling of what happens to an organism caught in the act of interacting with an object" (Damasio 1999:117).

Neuro-notes IV. "Some neurobiological models of consciousness, such as the global workspace theory, assume that the contents of consciousness are widely distributed in the brain" (source: McGill University Web tutorial on the brain , accessed Dec. 28, 2012).

Photo of imaged brain (from Kandel et al. 1991; copyright 1991 by Appleton & Lange)