When humans gesture, they activate an ancient connection between movement and breath


by Fabienne Salfner, Geisteswissenschaftliche Zentren Berlin eV (GWZ)

Human gesture-speech biomechanics and locomotor-respiratory-vocal coupling in a flying bat Credit: Pouw, W. & Fuchs, S.

Researchers from Radboud University and ZAS Berlin have developed a new perspective on why humans often move their hands rhythmically as they speak. The point of view published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Journals, suggests that there are striking links between animal and human behavior when it comes to moving with sounds. For example, flying bats synchronize their echo-location vocalization and their wing beats, which may be directly related to how humans synchronize the acoustic characteristics of their voice and move their upper limbs.

“When a bat echo localizes in flight, the muscle tension that drives the wing beats also leads to small compressions of the lungs. It becomes more economical for the bat to vocalize during these particular times in the cycle of wing beats, which results in synchronization,” says researcher Wim Pouw at the Donders Center for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior.

Pouw and her collaborator, Susanne Fuchs of the Leibniz-Center General Linguistics (ZAS) suggest that this is comparable to what happens when humans produce rhythmic hand gestures, as another line of research has shown that these hand gestures hand affect the movements of the rib cage, which change slightly. the volume of the lungs, and thus modify the aspects of the voice.

“Once we started reading on very different lines of research, we were amazed at how common it is for animals to synchronize their vocalizations with movement. We found that coupling movement and vocalization could be very important for the development of vocal repertoires,” said Dr. Fuchs.

In one particular type of bird, for example, flightless chicks have a very typical vocalization. But the quality of vocalization changes drastically when the chicks begin to use their wings in the nest to practice flying. Vocalization becomes similar to that of adults when they begin to use their wings to fly.

“This is exactly what is found in human infants around nine months old,” says Pouw. “As infants begin to rhythmically ‘babble’ with their hands in an exploratory way, they also begin to ‘babble’ in speech in the form of redoubled syllables such as ‘mom’ or ‘dad’.” Rhythmic movements can therefore have very early links with the voice, which explains why movement and sounds are so fundamentally linked.

This new perspective of how gesture relates to voice via interactions with breath provides an answer to why humans began to move their hands while vocalizing and speaking: these systems have physically interacted throughout evolutionary time, and this development is somewhat reflected in infants who begin to learn to move and vocalize at the same time.

“Many communication researchers believe that hand gestures were used to show things,” says Pouw. “But we actually think that’s not the whole story…in a way, gestures are also part of what it means for humans to speak, which is not a passive matter, but a orchestra of movement to generate meaning.”

We talk with our hands – and now we know body language can be heard too

More information:
Wim Pouw et al, Origins of the entangled vocal gesture, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Journals (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2022.104836

Provided by Geisteswissenschaftliche Zentren Berlin eV (GWZ)

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