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When what you say is not what you mean

April 5, 2019

 What we say is not always what we mean.


And vice versa.


Humans communicate in two ways, using words (semantics) and what scientists call prosody, which refers to everything else such as body language, tonality, facial expression context etc. Prosody is processed in the right side of the brain while semantics go to the left side.


Wernicke’s is the name of the area of the brain which is responsible for understanding communication. That area takes both hearing as well as visual inputs when processing communication. Broca’s is another region of the brain which is responsible for formulating language, usually responsible for moving the muscles that allow you to speak, to write or even to move your hands for sign language.


Because of the way our brain is designed we understand communication best when both words and prosody are used, which is most of the time. However, in most humans, the left hemisphere is dominant which explains why we put so much emphasis on words as a language. In our day to day life, we focus so much on semantics that we tend to underplay the importance of prosody even though it is in reality key. This is also why there are so many misunderstandings in sms/whatsapp communications and why so many of us have started using emojis to act as the prosody part of the message to try to avoid these miscommunications.


As children, our education system focuses mostly on semantics and the importance of words, with little to no focus on our body language. This misalignment between what we say and what we look like we’re saying, or between what someone is saying and what they seem to mean cause a lot of anxiety and stress. As a result, in recent years, theatre and other ‘expression in movement’ types of activities such as dance have made a comeback in a bid to bridge that gap.


Communicating without words is an important learning curve, something which can be developed with animals too. Like with most languages, body language relies on a pre-existing set of signs that both parties already agree on. In natural horsemanship, we use the horse’s own body language to communicate with him. Horses evolved to communicate silently so as not to be found by predators. They have a highly developed and efficient communication system insofar as they are able to pick up on and react extremely fast to a stimulus. A telling example is how horses can feel the adrenaline, either from another horse or from humans. They sync their adrenaline levels to their environment and as soon as someone around them gets angry or scared they can sense it.


People can do it too but, for the most part, we haven’t been taught to rely upon and therefore develop that skill. Animals, and especially horses, can help us learn or re-learn these alternate yet complementary sets of communication channels that will help us connect with and reach each other much better.


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