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Entrainment: Body Movement in Communication

On the Saturday evening of June 23, Professor Tomio Watanabe of Okayama Prefectural University appeared on the NHK program, Kaitai Shin Show to talk about the meaning of nodding in communication. I have known Professor Watanabe for nearly thirty years as a colleague in the field of baby research. And for this reason, in this month's Director's Message, I would like to address the subject of body movement in communication, in particular, as entrainment.

Human beings live in groups, and needless to say, mutual communication is absolutely necessary for us to establish households and societies. Fortunately, as a result of the long process of evolution, we have acquired the means of communicating through language. But clearly, that is not all there is to communication. Language is accompanied by gestures, for example, waving hands that signal understanding or a nod of acknowledgment. In fact, we could say the evolution of communication began with the movement of the arms, legs and the body.

Human communication generally relies on such means as the voice or language, actions or gestures with the hands or body, and signs such as letters or symbols. In other words, the means of communication can be broadly classified into three groups: speaking language, behavioral language, and symbol language. If we consider communication in terms of speaking language, it can be classified into verbal communication through spoken language and non-verbal communication through behavior, written language and signs.

Some very interesting research findings indicate that babies can also understand something like sign language if used well, in other words, baby signs. And, it has been twenty years or so, if I recall correctly, since research found that sign language had its own rules of "grammar." At a symposium on infant communication held by the Japanese Society of Baby Science in Omiya at the end of last month, a teacher of children with disabilities gave a presentation on sign language research. It appears that behavioral language such as sign language, uses the speech center (program of spoken language) in the brain.

When considering the significance of gestures in communication, it is instructive to start with the mother-child relationship. Imagine a situation in which the mother is talking to her adorable baby. She'll probably call the baby by name and say something like "You're so cute. What a good baby you are." Since the baby can't understand language, the mother's words themselves are not understood. Rather, in this case, what is communicated is the mother's gentle love conveyed by the rhythm of the mother's voice and words, pitch, intonation, melody, etc., which differs from the way she talks to the baby's father or other adults. On a personal note, in the late 1970s, when I was researching infant behavior, I read an eye-opening paper written by a researcher in the United States which found that the seemingly insignificant hand gestures of babies follow and mimic that the way the mother (adult) talks to the baby. It was then that I decided to study this phenomenon with more sophisticated research techniques and methods, that is, image processing with computers in collaboration with Professor Takemochi Ishii's group at the Faculty of Engineering, the University of Tokyo. Mr. Watanabe was one of the graduate students involved in this research project at the time.

The project was a grand success and we were able to scientifically prove that the baby's hand gestures do indeed gradually begin to adopt the rhythm of the mother's voice as she gently repeats phrases to the baby. This act of adopting a common rhythm by both the mother and infant is called entrainment.

These results were immediately written up in English by Dr. Akira Kato of Department of Pediatrics, the University of Tokyo, who was conducting research with Mr. Watanabe on this project. Under the names of all of the project members, we submitted this article to an American journal for publication. It was readily accepted and highly received. Professor Watanabe went on to continue his research, not only on hand gestures, but also on nodding, blinking, facial expressions and even found evidence of entrainment in changes in rhythm of breathing and heartbeat. It seems that we can now say with scientific validity that communication involves two people being in tune with each other.

Professor Watanabe also conceived various methods of increasing communication efficiency, one of which is the E-COSMIC or Embodied Communication System for Mind. Using robots, this technology creates a site or environment that initiates entrainment through nodding and other behavior. Entrainment through body movement and language in communication raises the efficiency of communication and empathetic exchange. In the abovementioned TV program, Professor Watanabe gave a specific example of a discussion about the consumption tax to show how this works. He compared two discussions, one that took place in an environment that used E-COSMIC to promote entrainment and the other that did not and found that the environment promoting entrainment rationally produced a higher tax rate.

I am moved by the fact that the communication which we conduct so naturally every day is a deeply embodied life mechanism. And we also now know that the site of communication has an important role in improving communication as well.

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