Hi and welcome to the series of articles that are all about looking underneath the hood of the concept we call “body language.”
When we talk about body language we talk about human behavior. It’s not only a “language” with the sole purpose to communicate with others, but an actual physical manifestation of our internal, emotional processes.
And this is where psychology comes in – after all, it’s all about scientifically understanding human nature. This is exactly what I want to present here in these pages, to give you a taste of modern psychology and its findings, especially from the neuroscientific approach – the study of the brain.
In most of the articles on the site, we discuss certain gestures or expressions and their meanings and origin. Here I rather want to focus on the “hardware” – what happens in your brain and your body when you experience emotions, and why that causes you to act in the way you do.
Before we start, 2 important notes:
1. Will this new information improve your communication skills or self-image? Not likely. Just like it’s not necessary to understand how the car works to operate it – you mustn’t know exactly what’s going on in your brain when you have a certain feeling.
But, it doesn’t mean that it’s useless or boring, quite the opposite! So if you put the utilitarian mindset aside I’m sure you’ll have a good read.
2. Modern psychology is filled with enormous amounts of study and research, which is much beyond the scope of this article.
My aim here isn’t to make you a brain expert but to allow you a glimpse into the fascinating way our bodies and brains work. So keep in mind that most of the things I’ll write are more complex (even much beyond my understanding), and I only elaborate when it’s necessary.
So what exactly we’re going to talk about?
- In these first 2 parts – it’s all about neuroscience. How the brain and your nervous system are structured, and how they relay signals to the rest of the body. The focus is to provide you with some biological and physiological background of the body, which I’ll refer to in the next parts.
- The following issue is about learning, especially conditioning. How do we learn our behavior, what are conditions, habituation, and critical periods? This part will shine a light on how we acquire habits and personal quirks– body language shaped by experience.
- The last part will be about emotions and feelings. What is the difference between them, and why do we feel the way we do? We’ll also see specific explanations of what happens in your body in times of anger, fear, and stress.
Alright, let’s start with some neuroscience 101:
What’s Neuroscience is all About?
Before we start talking about science stuff, I want to clarify an important point regarding how brain researchers view human nature.
You see, there are 2 points of view regarding what is “you”, and your consciousness.
The dualistic approach says that body and soul are separate things; your soul is the internal entity, your inner voice. And it determines how you feel and think, your body is just the vessel for the soul.
The monistic approach concludes otherwise – there is no distinction, you cannot separate the physical form from the mental one – it’s the same.
Brain experts mostly emphasized the second approach, since “soul” or “mind” are spiritual concepts, which we have no hard evidence – we cannot study them, you can’t just find them under a microscope!
But brain experts, through many experiments, now have a basic understanding of the brain and how it operates.
There is much evidence in their findings that concepts we usually refer to as our personality or our internal “voice” – feelings, free will, and consciousness can linked to activity and regions in the brain.
Of course, we cannot be cocky and declare that we know it all about how the machine called “human” works. No, it’s a very complex and controversial theme, and there’s still much more to discover. Neuroscientists believe and aim to learn as much as possible about the brain to help explain our nature.
I do not present it here to prove that one theory is better than the other or to say that there’s no such thing as a soul. I only address it because if you want to understand neuroscience, you need to understand how its viewpoint and the concepts it deals with.
You can read more about the philosophy of the mind here
Now that we have the right mindset, it’s time to get the right tools… We can’t talk about neuroscience without understanding its key terms, right?
How the Brain Controls Your Body
Phew! With all the introduction now over, let’s get to the real stuff – How the brain controls our body.
We have 2 parts to it: the central nervous system (CNS) – which includes your brain and the nerves in your spinal cord. The second part is all that’s left – the periphery nerves(AKA PNS), which, as their names suggest, are spread across the rest of your body.
The basic process of our interaction with our environment is based on some “input” (stimuli) and our execution as an “output” – and it goes something like this:
- You get signals from your environment through the sensory nerves in your periphery (smell, touch, and sight)
- These nerves send signals back to the CNS, through the nerves in the spinal cord.
- The nerves in your spine pass it along to your brain, to a designated sensory part that knows how to decode the signals you just received.
- Once a signal is received in that certain part of the brain, it will relay further to other areas with other functions. It’s a sort of chain reaction in which many signals are processed and integrated, and then a big picture is created.
- There is a part of your brain that’s responsible for the big picture, it makes evaluations and creates plans. This part involves mainly the front of our brains and is called the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).
- The last step is execution, once you have the general plan and need to make a move – special motor-governing areas in your brain will send orders back to the periphery through motor nerves.
This whole process is happening all the time and with incredible speed. Your brain never truly rests either – even when you go to sleep, loops keep running and processes keep, well, being processed.
How do we transmit the signals through the nerves though?
It’s a combination of 2 players – electricity and chemistry. When a signal is passing inside the nerve it runs like a current, when it passes between different nerves it does it by specific chemicals.
The electrical route is similar to a current running through a wire, only it has biological factors and it is called the Action Potential.
How quick your reactions are, is a factor of how fast the information is run through the nerves and how many “nodes” are in between, until a return signal is shot back.
This is why reflexes are automatic and fast, for example. When the reflex sensory nerve receives stimuli – it doesn’t require additional processing in your brain, but it instantly activates the motor nerve responsible for a preset action as soon as you feel the stimuli.
Now that we got the right mindset, and understand how the brain processes stimuli from the environment, we can safely continue with the study of our physiology and how the nerves work.
What are the Electro Chemical Pathways?
Let’s talk a bit about the chemical path. The action potential (our current) runs along the tail of the nerve (called its Axon) and meets at the end of the next nerve (called his dendrite), in their meeting point the current allows the release of chemical compounds called neurotransmitters (NT from now on).
These NTs are released and attached to the dendrite of the following nerve.
And when they do, they create a chemical reaction that leads either to an excitation of that nerve or its inhibition. To activate the next nerve we need to get a certain threshold of excitation.
Understand that a single nerve can receive input from many other nerves, and the summation of their excitation or inhibition signals is what determines whether or not the current will continue forward.
There is a delicate balance between the “on” and “off” switches that allows fine control over which messages get through and which do not, and in which cases.
If it does get through, then the current continues to run forward to the next nerve in line and can lead to a certain action (such as the contraction of a muscle).
There isn’t a “final stop” for this current – just like in an electric circuit. We have feedback loops that get regulated by the brain, and they lead to a change in the pattern of the firing signals (the action potentials).
The intensity and intervals of such signals are really what’s changing, but there isn’t some “off switch”, not even when you sleep.
Here’s an excellent video that sums up what we discussed so far. It also adds some extra info on how exactly the action potential works, so if that confuses you – don’t worry, it’s not critical to the understanding of the rest of the series.
Besides the “normal” NT which simply sends “activate” or “deactivate” signals, we have some special ones, which I’m sure you heard about. These “special” NTs transmit signals that affect your mood and trigger special states. Let’s see some examples:
Norepinephrine and Epinephrine (or adrenaline) –
“I just love the adrenaline rush”
Well, your body is probably less so – since it’s used mostly in a state of emergency by your brain and the autonomous nervous system (ANS) to enhance your vigilance and readiness for action. I’ll elaborate more when we get to the ANS.
Note: Epinephrine and adrenaline are synonymous terms; Norepinephrine (or Noreadrenaline) are different NT with similar effects. Adrenaline can also serve as a hormone in your body.
Both types are also secreted by the adrenal gland (which sits on top of your kidney) and then they serve as a hormone in your body in times of stress. (On the difference between Neurotransmitters and Hormones – read on)
Domaine the satisfaction NT, although it has some other jobs as well. When you have cravings – you can thank this stuff, since it’s released in your brain when you experience pleasure or satisfaction. What for? To encourage you to do more of whatever you’re doing at that moment. If you taste something and it feels good – this is your brain’s way to remember it as a good experience, which he’ll encourage you to repeat.
Now, not all the stuff that makes you feel better is good for you, and it’s no accident that many drugs stimulate its release and absorption.
Drugs that encourage Dopamine release or increase its duration in your brain (like cocaine) stimulate us and can make us feel awesome and energized, but also make us psychologically addicted to that superficial feeling of hype.
This NT is involved in many many processes and can affect our mood, digestion, aggressiveness, and sleep.
We know that drugs that increase serotonin levels in the brain help fight depression since they help alter your mood, and many antidepressants are based on this Seratonin.
Also, many psychedelic drugs bind to specific serotonin receptors in your brain and cause chemical manipulation which can make you see hallucinations and alter your state of mind.
Now let’s talk about hormones – hormones are quite similar to NT, but where NT is used in communication between nerves, hormones are secreted by specific glands (not the brain!) located in different places in your body (for example the adrenal gland is located above your kidney). Once they’re released, these specific hormones travel through your blood system to target other tissues.
Note: It’s not critical info, but you can remember that NT are chemical messengers that work between nerves, and hormones are chemical messengers that work through your bloodstream. Some chemicals can be both – such as the adrenaline I mentioned.
They usually facilitate long-term processes such as in growth and maturation, or as a tool to facilitate certain states in your whole body. For example, when you experience fear, Cortisol and Adrenaline are immediately released to maintain your body in a state of awareness, to “keep the engines running” even some time after the danger is over. It makes sense since you want to stay alert until you’re sure it’s safe to rest.
Let’s see some other examples:
- Oxytocin – AKA the love hormone. Up until recently, this hormone was only related to the facilitation of post-birth processes such as lactation and the bonding of the mother with her child. But today it’s also seen as related to intimate feelings and sex in couples and social behavior in general.
- Androgens and especially testosterone – are the family of male sex hormones that determines the male gender and later its maturation. Besides that, there is a correlation between testosterone levels and aggression, assertiveness, dominance, and risk-taking behavior. Note: although it’s a “male” hormone, women have it too, only in much smaller quantities.
- Estradiol and progrprogesteronefemale sex hormones. They also facilitate the menstrual cycle, each is released in different stages to prepare the female egg for fertilization.
- Cortisol – a stress hormone, which is released in times of… stress, or when you have low blood sugar. Its job is to signal your body to release the reserves of energy stored in your cells and turn them into glucose. Glucose is like the basic unit of fuel in your body, which the muscles burn to operate. So naturally, when you sense there’s a lot of action that’s going to happen – you want those reserves up in the front, ready to be used.
Is it Para or just Sympathetic?
One last introductory concept in neuroscience that I want to present to you is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS): The ANS is part of the central nervous system, but like its name suggests it is autonomous, not in our direct control.
The ANS controls many things we usually don’t need to think about but are critical to our survival – like breathing, keeping the heart pumping, and digesting. Imagine if we had to actively think every moment about such things, when we barely remember where we put our keys, better leave it on auto-pilot.
This system has 2 parts, which are opposite to each other in function and therefore keep one another in check – the Sympathetic system and the Parasympathetic system.
Both innervate the same organs but send opposite signals – where one makes your heart beat faster, the other slows it down.
The Sympathetic System
The sympathetic Nervous system is responsible mostly for the stimulation and activation of your body, and as I mentioned above, it also uses epinephrine.
It’s mostly activated in times of stress or strenuous activity and does the following:
- Makes your heart pump faster
- Expands blood vessels in the muscles
- Releases the energy reserves from the muscles
- Dilates your pupils
- Make your hair stand
- Increases your vigilance
- Accelerate your breathing
- Pump adrenaline from the adrenal gland to the bloodstream (as hormones)
- Limits the blood flow to less needed parts at the moment – like the digestive system.
The parasympathetic system
The Parasympathetic Nervous system does exactly the opposite and is activated most when you relax and rest. After all, you need time to recover and can’t be in turbo mode all the time.
I present these 2 systems because they play a critical role in our behavior and emotions, which we’ll talk about later in the series.