This year the Royal institution Christmas lectures are all about communication. Neuroscientist, Professor Sophie Scott, will be unravelling the fascinating facts about how we understand each other.
Words are not all we have, of course. Our facial expressions and body-language are just part of what is a pretty complicated process.
In an article in Focus magazine this month, Professor Scott gave an insight into what she will cover in the three lectures. The voice is very important of course. Without even seeing someone, (i.e. on the phone), you can have a good guess at their age, geographical origins, mood and health. Voices change throughout our lives. As women go through the menopause their voices tend to lower in pitch while men’s voices get higher as they age.
There are social and cultural factors too. Prior to puberty boys and girls should theoretically speak at the same pitch as they are similar in physical size but boys may speak with low notes because they are already picking up the characteristics from the men around them. We also communicate with our bodies and use our facial expressions, eye movements and body-language to express feelings. You can train yourself to pick up on people’s ever-changing facial expressions but a lot of the communication is down to the other person’s interpretation of the interaction.
So, can we train ourselves to use body language more effectively? Well, it must be possible because if you look at actors, dancers and singers they learn to use their bodies in an authentic way. You believe in their performance. But if people have only had a little body-language training it is likely that you will be able to see the ‘effort’. It’s the same thing with bad acting. We are so good at reading the clues to someone’s state of mind that as soon as something is not quite right we pick up on that lack of authenticity.
Laughter is also something we can fake but how do you spot that? When you just can’t stop laughing, that is the most spontaneous kind of laughter. If that stops and then starts again quite quickly, it is being used more communicatively. This more controlled type of laughter is a useful social skill. We can use it to change a mildly difficult situation into a positive, safe one. We think we’re laughing at jokes and humour, but we’re laughing just as much for social reasons, to show that we like and agree with the people we’re with.
Finally, Professor Scott will look at modern technology and what impact it has had on communication. It was only 100 years ago that you could have a conversation using postcards through the twice-daily postal delivery,(my grandparents did just that). Now the possibilities are endless. One of the first things we did with mobile phones was to send text messages which no one saw coming.
There is fairly recent data which shows that face-to-face interaction, live or on-screen, leads to people feeling happier than when just listening. Happiness also drops off in text-based interactions.
So, whatever happens, Professor Scott believes that communication is always going to be rooted in the face-to-face interaction because that is how we learnt to use speech as we grew up.
If you want to find out more then watch the Royal institution Christmas lectures on BBC Four from 26th to 28th of December at 8:00pm. I certainly shall.
Thank you for reading and have a wonderful Christmas.
Speak Loud & Clear!