Sometimes people ask me how I can tell what a horse is feeling. To the untrained eye, equine facial expressions do seem more limited than ours. However, horses more than make up for this through consistent, meaningful changes in ear position and body posture that are recognizable at a considerable distance, an important adaptation for social animals grazing over large territories. Humans—who cannot move their ears—probably look quite stoic to the average horse, like a schoolmarm with her hair pulled back in a severe bun. And just think how close you have to stand to a person to see her wink, frown or smile, let alone clench her jaw in anger, turn red with embarrassment, or well up with the first sign of tears.
Science, however, has recently discovered that people are better at reading body postures than you might expect—sometimes trusting these cues more than facial expressions in determining others’ moods. In The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, biologist Frans de Waal cites a number of clever studies illustrating this point. In one experiment, scientists pasted an angry face on a fearful body and a fearful face on an angry body. At first the subjects were noticeably confused by the incongruity, which slowed down their reaction time, but “the body posture won out when the subjects were asked to judge the emotional state of the depicted person.” In another experiment, when people watched pictures of fearful body postures with the faces blacked out, “the subjects’ faces still registered fear.”
These and others studies led de Waal to develop the “Body First Theory,” which holds that sometimes “emotions arise from our bodies” and are also transferred between people through the body first. Most people believe that emotions arise from thoughts and memories, and while this is often true, the brain is not always in charge of this process, not by a long shot. Work by Candace Pert, Ph.D. and other researchers active in the field of psychoneuroimmunology proved that the molecules carrying emotional information (called neuropeptides) are not only generated by the brain, but by sites throughout the body, most dramatically in the heart and the gut. As it turns out, recommendations to “follow your heart” or “pay attention to gut feelings” are not metaphors. Researchers subsequently discovered that sixty percent of the heart’s cells are neural, and that the gut has more neural cells than the spinal column, prompting some scientists to consider the brain as one of three somatic intelligence centers that can gather, process, and yes, even communicate information.
In the late-twentieth century, scientists also confirmed that the body-mind connection is a two-way street. Postures and facial expressions not only express our emotional state by moving from the brain down through the body, they can change our emotional state by moving from the body up to the brain. So that while we smile when we are happy, “our mood can be improved by simply lifting the corners of our mouth,” de Waal reveals. “If people are asked to bite down on a pencil lengthwise, taking care not to let the pencil touch their lips (thus forcing the mouth into a smile-like shape), they judge cartoons funnier than if they have been asked to frown.” Similarly, various political, social and religious organizations have a long history of creating rigid, compliant followers by promoting submissive or militaristic, machine-like postures and behaviors, drawing, as we now know, on the contagious, consciousness-altering nature of body language.
Yet as de Waal also emphasizes, even seriously repressed people have some choice in the matter. We all know, for instance, that there “are times when matching the other’s emotions is not a good idea. When we’re facing a furious boss, for example, we’d get into deep trouble if we were to mimic his attitude.”
Social intelligence involves accurately reading people’s feelings and using this information thoughtfully. Increasingly, this also requires noticing when you’re catching an emotion or body posture that originated in someone else. For leaders, it can even involve recognizing unproductive emotional trends and turning them around, “driving emotions in the right direction to have a positive impact on earnings or strategy,” as Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee emphasized in Primal Leadership.
Contrary to popular belief, however, this doesn’t mean sweeping uncomfortable feelings and concerns under the rug. Add current research on the contagious nature of emotion, and you realize that to turn negative feelings around in a group, you must transform them, not hide them. And that means you must first turn them around in yourself, recognizing that your own heart rate, blood pressure, and body posture are being affected by the feelings of others, and vice versa. Sounds like an evil little hall of mirrors, doesn’t it? But it’s the “other 90 percent” at work, plain and simple.