Various enterprises and personal interests, such as Man-Machine Interaction (MMI), gesture studies, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Category: Semiotics Page 1 of 2

Is a Yawn a Gesture?

In an old article BBC News reported about research showing that Pet dogs can ‘catch’ human yawns. The article is available online in Biology Letters here. (Article ‘Dogs catch human yawns’ by Ramiro M Joly-Mascheroni, Atsushi Senju* and Alex J Shepherd, 2008).

The copying activity suggests that canines are capable of empathising with people, say the researchers who recorded dogs’ behaviour in lab tests.
Until now, only humans and their close primate relatives were thought to find yawning contagious.
The team – from Birkbeck College, University of London – reports its findings in Biology Letters.
Yawning, although sometimes a response to extreme stress, is more often a sign of tiredness; but the reason for why yawning is catching is not fully understood.

Human cues. There is evidence that autistic individuals are less inclined to yawn into response to another human yawning, suggesting that contagious yawning betrays an ability to empathise, explained Birbeck’s Dr Atsushi Senju. Dr Senju and his team wondered whether dogs – that are very skilled at reading human social cues – could read the human yawn signal

There are several very interesting things in these statements. Firstly, I am interested in yawning itself. It is called a social cue. What is a ‘social cue’ as opposed to an ‘intentional act of communication’, which is how I define ‘gestures’?

The article itself has this to say about dogs’ abilities:

Dogs are unusually skilled at reading human social and communicative cues. They can follow human gaze and pointing (Hare et al. 2002; Miklo´ si et al. 2003; Miklo´ si & Soproni 2006), they can show sensitivity to others’ knowledge states (e.g. indicating the location of a hidden toy more frequently to someone not involved in hiding it than to someone who did the hiding, Vira´nyi et al. 2006) and they are even able to match their own actions to observed human actions (Topa´l et al. 2006).

Goffman and Kendon both make a distinction between ‘giving information’ and ‘giving off information’. In most cases, a yawn gives off information to possible observers, but a yawner does not mean to give information, I would think (although in many cases yawners may want to indicate their tiredness or boredom). The distinction is important because giving information is typically attended to and reacted upon, whereas giving off information is not. Expectations and social etiquette are likewise.

So, how about contagious yawning? It seems to be caused by empathy or to require empathy, at least in humans and dogs. As such a co-yawn also gives off the information that this other persons is observing you and empathizes with you, for what it’s worth.

And I think that that could well be the best explanation. Contagious yawning is behaviour that serves to provide information to those present that they are aware of each other and ’empathizing’ in a very economic way. It is economic because none of those present has to overtly attend to the behaviour and react upon it with speech or gestures. A bonding mechanism mostly below the surface of our consciousness.

And possibly, contagious yawning is much like all sorts of other behaviour, such as mirroring. It is a kind of mirroring I suppose. But there are many other sorts of mirroring.

Here is an alternative interpretation and explanation of contagious yawning

Note that there is a considerable and growing literature on yawning, contagious yawning and how this relates to our psychology and biology. In humans, dogs, chimpansees, other apes and monkeys, birds, cats, etc.

A very interesting research case. Take any animal and see if it catches your yawn.

I’m off yawning at the chickens, bye…

What a nice gesture

This evening I will come home and give my wife some flowers.
What will she make of this? Why do I give her flowers? Is it a nice gesture? Why call it a gesture at all?

Why do we call certain actions by people in certain conditions ‘a gesture’ (a ‘nice gesture’, or ‘only a gesture’)? Actions which under different circumstances would be mere practical actions, with some goal in mind?

I read the following this morning: ”Other non-visual gestures include ideas that manifest themselves or become known. The thought of giving a gift to someone could be regarded as a ‘nice gesture’.”
From: University of Chicago: Gesture

Is the gesture the idea that becomes manifest or known? If so, then which idea is this? My idea that my wife deserves a gift? Or is rather my idea that I should make it known that I’m aware that she deserves a gift? I would prefer the latter choice of ideas. Yet, still the idea itself does not count as the gesture for me. It is only when I act, and by acting display my awareness that my wife deserves a gift, that there is the seed of a gesture. Personally, before calling it a gesture, I would first like to see my wife acknowledge the act and the idea behind it. That means she must first understand that a present is given. Then, my awareness of the deservedness should be acknowledged. If this happens, I’ll be happy to call it a gesture. I will have intentionally communicated an idea, which was even succesfully picked up.

Without the acknowledgement by the receiver the entire act is a gesture only from my point of view, and not to anyone else (unless my mind is otherwise read by a third party). Chances are that the act will be perceived as a regular practical action (“He brought some flowers because he thinks the table is so empty without”).

So, assuming the gesture is confirmed by the receiver’s acknowledgement, will it be ‘a nice gesture’ or ‘only a gesture’? This rests entirely upon the interpretation of the message within the relation I have with my wife. And that’s between her and me.

Evolution according to Tomas Persson & Co

[email] Hi Jeroen,
Happened upon your blog. Thought you might enjoy this paper on a proposed iconic-gestural origin of language. Or perhaps another of the publications [from SEDSU].
All the best,
Tomas Persson

Frontpage illustration from the paper.

Well, I checked it out and for all those interested in evolution it might be nice to do the same. The paper’s full title is ‘Bodily mimesis
as “the missing link” in human cognitive evolution’, by Jordan Zlatev, Tomas Persson and Peter Gärdenfors. First impression: Strange how people tend to think that the topic of their study (in Lund’s case it is a workpackage on ‘imitation and mimesis’) is the one decisive factor in human evolution. And I never have a shred of evidence to prove them wrong. But it will be interesting to read their case in more detail.

{I, for one, believe that it is our ability to blog that sets us apart from other animals. And, of course, I mean blogging in a broad sense. For what is blogging if it is not the continual provision of unelicited non-information on how we feel about things and about what we know. Humans have always ‘blogged’, even before the internet and before the alphabet. We filled the world with our own thoughts and listened to ourselves, not to anyone else. This constant egoistic reflection created an evolutionary pressure whereby only individuals who could sustain this confrontation with the inner blogger, were still confident enough to reproduce. Since then, most of the strains of humanity who had any shame or humility left have died out in (relative) silence. What is left is what we are now: wanderers of the web, captains of comments, and slaves to our next posting.}

[SEDSU’s main hypothesis:] There remains, despite centuries of debate, no consensus about what makes human beings intellectually and culturally different from other species, and even less so concerning the underlying sources of these differences. The main hypothesis of the project Stages in the Evolution and Development of Sign Use (SEDSU) is that it is not language per se, but an advanced ability to engage in sign use that constitutes the characteristic feature of human beings; in particular the ability to differentiate between the sign itself, be it gesture, picture, word or abstract symbol, and what it represents, i.e. the “semiotic function” (Piaget 1945).

Substantial work has of course been done on gesture (or sign language) with primates (see this entire issue of Gesture). In some cases chimpansees or gorillas were taught to use gestures or pictures as signs (with a semiotic function). How does that fit into SEDSU’s picture?

By intuition, I would sooner propose that it is our ability to create ‘systems of systems’ of signs that sets us apart. Or maybe our ability to create and remember such large quantities and varieties of signs. I think even most animals and perhaps (what the hell) plants can be argued to ‘gesture’. Do they differentiate between a signal and that which it represents? I think they do. Any animal that warns his group against predators is sending out a signal. The group members see the signal, not the predator, right? Or perhaps they can only communicate about what is actually present and not refer to things in other times and places?

Enough speculation. It is time to read. I expect your reactions to the paper within this week…

ps. Did you wonder about the semiotic function of the {curly brackets} as used above? Then you must be human. The answer: I signaled a humorous intermezzo.

What is Social Robotics?

Is it possible to give a good definition of social robotics? Is it a field of scientific study or is it only a catch phrase for exciting robot stuff? If it is a field of study, can we identify what belongs to it and what is outside of the field? Should we already set such boundaries or should we wait a while to give maximum growing room to the first seeds being planted by enthusiastic researchers and engineers around the world?

Instead of answering these questions here directly, I want to give you two answers of a different kind.

The first answer is that sometimes things can best be defined by identifying good examples (see explanation of Prototype Theory). If enough people can agree on good examples of social robotics then this defines the phrase ‘Social Robotics’ as a usable concept. This kind of definition plays an important role in the study of language and, given that the word ‘robot’ came from literature rather than science, it appears appropriate to try to define it in this way. Therefore, I collected the following videos that, in my opinion, each deal with one or more aspects of social robotics. They are all good examples of social robotics.

As a second answer, which may be more useful if you need more clarity fast, here is a reference to the call for participation of our recent workshop ‘Robots that Care‘, which contains a description of the field of social robotics.

One CareBot ™ One Family

At my new workplace, TNO, we had a modest celebration today: Two robot projects in which we will be cooperating have been approved by the EC (three cheers for the authors of the proposals RL and MN!). One of those is concerned with robotics in healthcare, which brings me to the next video:

From Gecko Systems (check out more movies) comes this would-be personal robot nurse. The people in this movie appear slightly naïve in their childish enthusiasm but it’s nevertheless good to have such glimpses of the future. Who knows, perhaps you and I will be nursed by such machines? A thought I find somewhat disturbing, I must confess.

One family’s experience with a robot companion for their Mother.

Also on Robots-Dreams
Gecko about Consumer Familycare
Gecko about Professional Healthcare

Gesture Wellformedness

I am running an experiment on the acceptability of variation in sign language. One of the things that touch upon this matter is sign wellformedness, which supposes a certain sign language phonology with rules that tell whether a sign is wellformed or not. I am not done thinking that one over but it did get me thinking: is there such a thing a gesture wellformedness.

According to these guys, there definitely is a way to do a gesture and a way that you don’t do it. Listen to the comments for details 🙂

A Band called Obscene Gesture

I just found out that there is a trashcore (?) band called Obscene Gesture.

Don’t they look all tough and mean? (source)

And then that menacing gesture that is just ‘disgusting to the senses’, and/or ‘repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles’.

These men-boys will have to watch out for the US laws on obscenity.

A final note: should their music be considered one giant musical gesture?

Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in ASL

I recently read (or glanced through parts) of the 2003 book by Scott K. Liddell: Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language

The main message of the book is one that I would have found trivial if I did not know anything about linguistics. It must take a linguist to surprise a linguist, I guess. Liddell basically points out that there is more to talking than just what is said. I wonder if there are really any structural linguisitic professors out there that would argue against this?

Using many examples he shows how in ASL there are many processes of meaning-making at work. And he suggests that the same is true for spoken languages. When we speak we use words and grammar, but we also use intonation, and we gesture, raise our eyebrows, roll our eyes, etc, etc. Not surprisingly, the same is true for American Sign Language, and undoubtedly for all spoken and signed languages across the globe. When we sign we also gesture, use space in different ways, raise our eyebrows in different flavours, and roll our eyes in all directions. Every language has lexical items (signs and words) and grammatical processes to combine and alter them, but there is always so much more going on when we express ourselves.

Deaf or Hearing?

Liddell is however probably now the first and foremost figure in the Sign Language research community to move to a new agenda. The old (or current) agenda is proving that Sign Language is at a par with spoken/written languages at all levels (such as categorical perception of phonological properties). Alongside runs research showing (dis)similarities in neurological processing between so-called non-linguistic gestures and linguistic gestures (further proof that sign language is like ‘real’ language and not like gesturing).

Signers or Talkers?

When I started reading about sign language and gestures I found it difficult to believe how little interaction there was between research on both topics. Gesture researchers were finding out that gestures and speech are not separated by a fence called ‘linguistic status’, while at the same time Sign Language researchers kept on proving the inferior nature of “gesticulation”. Did they choose to be blind to normal gestures of hearing people? Is there still fear of not being taken seriously? Perhaps there is, and I cannot fathom whether such fear is warranted nor whether ASL status still requires defence beyond reason.

ASL or English?

I heartily recommend Liddell’s book to anyone interested in the similarities between signed and spoken languages and the similarities between sign language and gestures. Rest assured that Liddell provides a score of wonderful material on ASL meaning-making mechanisms, which will clear anyone of the notion that it is a poor or primitive language. The richness he documents is testimony to what matter most: people´s enormous potential to communicate effectively with eachother, through any and all means available.

Two out of four of the above pictures contain people that are ‘signers’, the other are mere ‘talkers and gesturers’. Can you spot them?

Is sketching gesturing?

My brother in law Coen sent me a link to a YouTube video about a digital drawing board: It raises a nice question: Is sketching gesturing? Two easy answers: Yes, it falls under gesture because it is movement that is intended to communicate (or movement that expresses intention. No, it is different because it is not the movement itself but rather the result, the lines drawn, that convey the message. A few observations about sketching and gesturing: (1) If you would like to sketch but do not have pen and paper, you may very well revert to gesturing and ‘sketch in the air’. (2) If you explain a sketch it will often include gestures that enrich or clarify the message contained in the sketch. (3) There is style of drawing and painting that refers to gesture. It is called gesture drawing or action painting. The main idea is that the resulting art should capture or even show the original movements, for those are deemed an important expressive power. The Pirates (source) I am afraid I will leave the question unanswered for you for now. You are cordially invited to share your opinion. I will point you to an interesting book that, in my opinion is a must read to study the relation between gesturing and sketching: André Leroi-Gourhan (1964-65). Le geste et la parole, Paris, Albin Michel. ( English translation by AnnaBostock Berger, 1999: Gesture and Speech, MIT Press. An excellent review by Copple in Gesture. And to be frank, I did not read beyond Copple’s review yet, so I want to wait before making any sweeping statements on the issue. I do like the overall theory that both gesture and drawing are tied to our capacity for symbolic communication (but that is such a general remark it is almost trivial).

Umpire insulted by gesture

More important than politics, semiotics, science and art is of course… cricket. The noble game of hitting a ball and running back and forth dominates the lives of countless anglophiles throughout the former commonwealth.

Men will be boys? (source)

And now it appears that Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul Haq made an insulting gesture to umpire Darrell Hair, resulting in Hair’s leaving of the match against England, effectively ending it. Unfortunately, there is no picture of the actual gesture. It’s like with cricketer Darren Lehmann, the web is silent. There is only this strange description:

“Inzamam then made a waving gesture to which Hair took great exception and walked out. One explanation is that the Australian umpire felt the gesture was insulting to anyone who knew anything about Pakistani culture.” (source DNA Indiae)

Was it like this one from Shoaib Akhtar? (source)

So, has anyone seen it and are you willing to share an event so uncharacteristic of the grounds with this audience? Was the insult obvious to all bystanders or was Hair overly sensitive? Or did Inzamam think he could be clever and insult the umpire in a way that it would be clear for them both but not for anyone else. Did he think Hair would not be able to act on it if nobody else saw it? I think this sort of complex reasoning might be how the perception of insults sometimes works.

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