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Communication and Embodiment

Miho Kitamura
Associate Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study

We exchange words and convey feelings. Communication is an important part of our daily lives. Communication is likewise important to animals for the sake of survival. However, to us humans—living life surrounded by many strangers outside our family— we can benefit a lot more from communicating and making a good impression on others.

The content of our discourses, i.e. what we talk about, is of course the core of communication, but other information is also known to influence each other's impressions. Take posture for example. Have you ever straightened your back to make a good impression during job interviews or on dates? On the other hand, has anxiety ever made you hunch your shoulders? Many people are likely to have been told by their parents to "straighten your back" while young. Your parents are right, because the effect of having good posture on communication is greater than we may think. In a recent study, we found our intention in making a good (or bad) posture is effective in improving our interpersonal impressions. Participants were told to assume "good” or “bad" postures without being instructed specifically on how to go about them. Although the poses taken up by the participants varied, the participants standing with the intention to look good were distinctly rated with more attractive and trustworthy compared to bad postures when other participants assessed them. Good posture made with the intention to look good conveyed a positive impression to other people.

Additionally, the assessment did not change even if the posture was only shown for 100 milliseconds (one tenth of a second). This means that everyone is capable of making a good (or bad) impression on others by assuming the right (or wrong) posture, and this is being evaluated in a split second. In other words, even if you are not a professional poser like a model, you can make a good (or bad) impression on someone by changing your posture before you even engage in a conversation. In animals, rounding backs conveys submission and a lack of aggressive intent. As such, it is said to be an important sign linked to survival. From an evolutionary point of view, the ability to read and express oneself through postures would be an inherent skill that is automatically activated during communications.

Another interesting thing is that the postures we assume have an impact on our minds as well. When we assume a confident pose, our confidence level also rises. On the contrary, when we slump our shoulders, we become introverted and feel weak. Research by Amy Cuddy, which has also been translated and published in Japan, has a detailed explanation, but this is a phenomenon widely known in psychology as "embodiment." Not only does the state of our minds determine the state of our bodies, we are also equipped with an ability in which the state of our bodies determines the state of our minds. Although more than a century has passed since the theory stating "we do not cry because we are sad, we are sad because we cry" (James-Lange theory) was developed, more and more supporting evidence in recent years is emerging.

One such evidence is from a system (DAVID https://www.waseda.jp/top/news/36483) developed last year by Professor Katsumi Watanabe from the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda University, where I formerly belonged. Research was conducted using this system. It converts voice prosody (information other than words such as intonation and rhythm) into specific emotions and returns emotionally filtered words back to the speaker. The crucial point of this system is its ability to gradually change a person's tone of voice in real time without the speaker actually noticing the changes. It was discovered that by having a person listen to voice filtered with some emotions (e.g., joyful) while making them think the voice is their own, the emotional state of the person changed in congruence with the emotion (e.g., joyful). In other words, physical information changed their emotional mindset without them noticing.

What then, would happen in a conversation? We are currently engaged in research regarding that very question. How would one's feelings change by talking to a person whose voice becomes happy without you realizing it? There have been similar studies until now, which have shown that adopting a similar rhythm of speech makes better impressions on the other person, making it easier to build trust. However, attempting to alter voices to produce specific emotions in real time was technologically challenging until now and not well researched. This was made possible by the development of DAVID—particularly what happens when the change occurs unconsciously without one being aware of it. If our feelings change in response to implicit changes of other people's physical states, embodiment would be more interpersonal phenomena than we think.

This is the same with what we were previously discussing—posture. How do our postures and emotions change in response to other people's postures and how far do our postures and emotions influence one another? In a future where robots such as AI are predicted to be a member of our society, it would be highly significant to study the mutual interaction between body and emotion. Particularly in communication, it is not simply about forming impressions, but also about the concluding point of a conversation. For example, does the end result of a conversation produce or give rise to something, or does negotiation break down when more than two parties are involved in it. Those end points of the communication would be also modulated by embodiment. Perhaps the reason why online communications often "go up in flames" may be due to the lack of embodiments such as prosody and postures. The development of future research on communication and embodiment is wide open and I for one am looking forward to it.

Miho Kitamura
Associate Professor at the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study

Kitamura graduated from Tohoku University in 2006 after completing three years of doctorate courses in the Faculty of Arts and Letters (acquisition of a doctorate (literature)). She took up her current position in April 2017 after working as a researcher at the Tohoku University School of Medicine, The University of Tokyo Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, NTT Communication Science Laboratories, and the Waseda University Faculty of Science and Engineering. Her expertise is in experimental psychology. She is also a visiting researcher at the NTT Communication Science Laboratories.