Monday, December 10, 2007

Gesture, Culture and Mirror Neurons

Image taken from

One of my earlier posts listed instances of communities that spontaneously came up with micro-languages based on gesture because of their inability to communicate via speech.

But how closely are gesture and culture related?

I recently came across an interesting study by Istvan Molnar-Szakacs and Dr. Marco Iacoboni that examines the relationship between gesture and culture using a specific type of brain cell known as a "mirror neuron". According to the article, these neurons "fire not only when an individual performs a particular action but also when he or she watches another individual perform that same action. Neuroscientists believe this "mirroring" is the mechanism by which we can read the minds of others and empathize with them."

By measuring brain activity, the scientists found was that American subjects showed higher responsiveness to either American, Nicaraguan or completely meaningless gestures when performed by an American as opposed to the same gestures when performed by a Nicaraguan. In other words, we are programmed to respond more to our own cultural or ethnic "in-group", leading the scientists to surmise that "our brain mirrors people, not actions".

Since the perceived culture of the performer affects our interpretation of gestures, there is a cultural component to gesture. The strength of this connection is still unclear from the article I read, but would determine the impact on animation as it becomes an increasingly cross cultural medium.

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