A Nice Gesture by Jeroen Arendsen

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


I am not a connoisseur of Rembrandt nor of any other painter for that matter. I am but a student of the way people gesture. Rembrandt’s portrayal of scenes stocked with people in action struck me as a nice object of study. His capture of a moment and the life within his pictures is widely praised and partly ascribed to his daring portrayal of gestures. His subjects are seldom in rest, and even then not in a neutral rest. Their postures and their hand movements are chosen to tell a story, or to make them extras which add to the story being told.

In his famous ‘honderguldenprent‘ the gospel comes alive. It portrays parts of the thirty verses of Matthew 19. We are able to read the picture by the portrayal of the people and by reading the verses in support. We see the great multitudes that he healed flooding through the gate on the right. They plead, and Jesus blesses them. We see the Pharisees discussing, with various co-speech gestures and contemplative postures, the exchange of words they had with Jesus about divorce with Jesus not paying them any more attention. His attention appears mostly focussed on the approaching mothers with children. One child points him out, dragging his mother along. Jesus restrains Peter who is keeping back a mother with infant, welcoming her instead.

This ‘Hundred Guilder Print’ contains a good part of any of the gestures used by Rembrandt. On the one hand there are emblems such ‘plea’ or ‘bless’ which occur often. On the other hand there are many outstretched hands with either palms up or palms down. These remind me of Kendon’s (2004) treatment of such gestures. One typical example in the picture here is the vertical palm of one of the men trying to make Jesus attend to a particular sick person.

At the Rembrandthuis a collection of graphical work is kept of which the ‘genre’ and ‘religious’ material are nice to study.

The biblical work by Rembrandt appears to be the most interesting for studying his portrayal of gestures. Simply because they often occur, but also because they are used to aid the rendering of the story, and therefore show a greater variety.

More on Rembrandt: http://rembrandt.startpagina.nl/

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.

The Int. Soc. on Gesture Studies

Sinds 2002 bestaat er een International Society on Gesture Studies Ze organiseren conferenties (Austin 2002, Lyon 2005, Chicago2007) en ondersteunen het internationale journal Gesture. Het Nijmegen Gesture Center is een van de steunpilaren (qua mensen en faciliteiten), alsmede de labs van Janet Bavelas, Susan Goldin-Meadow, David McNeill, en het Berlin Gesture Center.

Kids learn about Gesture

There’s a nice site in the Netherlands that teachers can use to get ideas for special classes. One of the themes is about gestures and sign language. Mind you, it’s for all children, not just deaf ones. There are great suggestions for each age group: 4-5 6-7 8-9 10-11. It is in Dutch. The author is Ben Verschuren. I tried to contact him at the publisher, but to no avail. If anyone could introduce us, I’d be grateful. The one I like best is for the oldest kids, who are invited to study gestures in art. I just recently started doing that, and I’m age 33. God, I wish my teacher had read this website when I was young.

Reality check for Mule-like Robots

In the news today: Marine Corps Shelves Futuristic Robo-Mule Due to Noise Concerns.

I always love it when robots and robotic solutions are actually evaluated in a reality check with the people who are supposed to use it in the future in a realistic scenario. Often, these people and these scenario’s have not really been involved in the development process.

In this case it turns out that the Robo-Mule was too loud and suffered from other real-world problems like dependability and subtlety. So, the military has decided to shelve the programme until further notice, meaning that the company developing the robot basically also stops the programme.

For other sectors, like healthcare, these kinds of reality checks are also important. Because, it the military finds the system unsuitable for real-world application then chances are that other sectors will also find fault with it. A similar case was the exo-skeleton. After initial pioneering work by the military it was also thought applicable in healthcare. But, after the military lost interest, the entire solution lost a lot of momentum.

Some images of the Robo-Mule.

Dutch News / Nederlandse vertaling

Item over Zora en andere robots in de zorg bij CampusTV Utrecht

Naar aanleiding van een grote proef met de Zora robot (eigenlijk NAO met wat extra programmering door een Belgisch bedrijfje) was er een item op CampusTV van de Hogeschool Utrecht over robots in de zorg.

Ik was uitgenodigd als expert om commentaar te geven over robots in de zorg.

Zie Campustalk 07 Winter 2015-2016 https://youtu.be/qd8txYpq9GM (actie vanaf 3:30). Het verhaal van de verzamel-expert is trouwens ook leuk (aan het eind).

Gareth Bale’s Free Kick Thwarted by Magic Spell Caster Tal Ben Haim

Just when you think you have seen it all:

Watch Israel’s Tal Ben Haim bewitch the ball about to be kicked by Wales’ Gareth Bale

Interestingly, there are more examples of magical gestures being used on the pitch, in sports. For example, there is a story about anchor gestures used in cricket to relieve stress. You can even invent them yourself, much like one can create one’s own mudra. And all of those examples have a lot in common with the creation of magical spells

This player, Tal Ben Haim II, is worth a google… according to Wikipedia he has only played for Israeli teams and has played for Israel a number of times. Well, nothing else really stands out, so this incident with Bale is really his best claim to fame so far.

Gun gesture not so innocent after all

In the news today in the UK Daily Mail:

Brother of ‘hoodie’ who mocked David Cameron with a gun gesture in 2007 has been shot in the legs after a doorstep attack (link)

Now, this is a sad story about a young man who was named in the media, Ryan Florence, see my previous post here. At the time it seemed like it was a fairly childish gesture that people overreacted to. Perhaps I was wrong. It turns out both he and his brother are involved in illegal gun posession and now his brother has been shot in both of his legs…

The infamous gun gesture aimed at then prime minister David Cameron

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