Five television screens, clustered together in a small control room, stream the actions of a young man sitting in the room next door. Although his elaborate gestures are quite attention grabbing, two researchers stand watching one screen in particular with their arms crossed.
This screen, denoted with a bright green Post-it, is filled with a close-up of the man’s head and shoulders. As he speaks with a clipboard-toting interviewer nearby, it catches each and every expression that flits across his face. He leans forward and slightly cocks his right eyebrow.
The researchers emit simultaneous “Oohs”.
Later, that same movement will be measured, coded, and analyzed by researchers at the New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour (NZILBB) who are tracking the participant’s every twitch, wriggle, and eyebrow raise. Even the quickest brow flash—lasting potentially less than 100 milliseconds, faster than the average blink—may clue the researchers in on precisely how and why we use our eyebrows during speech.
If we raise our eyebrows to emphasize an idea, will we raise our brows even higher if we perceive an idea to be of extra importance?
The NZILBB team hopes the brow-raising data they collect will bolster their previous findings from 12 participants they interviewed over the course of a year, which suggest that how we gesture—or how we involuntarily move our hands, face, and eyes while speaking—takes on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.
“A lot of aspects of a person's gesture repertoire are actually quite idiosyncratic,” says Jeanette King, head of the bilingualism section at NZILBB, leading the study. “So we all have a little bit of our own accent and perhaps a little bit of an accent from the sorts of language or cultural background we come from.”
In a previous study, for example, King’s team looked for unique gesture characteristics in young male Maori, the indigenous Polynesian population in New Zealand, compared to young male Pakeha, the Maori term for New Zealanders of European decent.
The researchers conducted a standard sociolinguistic interview, which uses different tasks to prompt participants to speak in different registers, such as in a formal or informal speech style.
In particular, the research team focused on a traditional gesture exercise, which asks participants to recount an old Warner Bros. cartoon involving a depressingly determined Sylvester the Cat attempting to nab Tweety Bird from an upper-floor apartment. As the participants described Sylvester’s actions, cameras focused on their hands, head, and face.
To test for cultural influence, the researchers interviewed Maori fluent in English and the Maori language, and Pakeha English speakers.
The Maori participants sat through three randomized interviews: with a Pakeha interviewer speaking English; with a Maori interviewer speaking English; and with a Maori interviewer in the Maori language. The Pakeha participants did not participate in a session with a Maori interviewer speaking Maori.
A few unique motions set the Maori individuals apart from their Pakeha peers. Maori used more “flat-handed” gestures to indicate movement and for spatial descriptions, for example. Most notable, however, was exactly how much the Maori participants’ eyebrows jumped around in conversation.
James Gruber, a postdoctoral student working with King, says that in these initial tests, which simply noted whether the eyebrow moved up or down, the brows of Maori speakers were clocking 25 to 30 movements per minute, compared to only four to eight for Pakeha speakers.
“It just jumps off the screen at you,” Gruber says. Additionally, the eyebrows of the Maori participants grew more and more active throughout the interview sequence: In other words, they raised their brows the most while speaking Maori to the Maori interviewer and least while speaking in English to the Pakeha interviewer.
Although the researcher team is still trying to pinpoint exactly why this happens, Gruber believes that different domains, or environmental contexts, might be a factor influencing this gesture “accent.” The Maori members of the study were part of Kapa Haka troupes or other cultural Maori performing groups. When they usually speak Maori, they’re probably surrounded by this specific cultural environment.
“They’re not just walking into Starbucks and ordering a latte in Maori,” Gruber says. At Starbucks, they’re most likely ordering their long-black coffees in English. So, if asked to speak Maori in another domain, such as Starbucks, a Maori individual may subconsciously associate with their Maori cultural environment and subtly alter the way they gesture.
Although these findings might provoke an eye roll from New Zealanders—Maori eyebrows are the stuff of New Zealand folk legend—Gruber says that his team’s findings are some of the first quantitative evidence of a largely anecdotal phenomenon.
“That’s one of the fun things with linguistics research and gesture research a lot of times—investigating these intuitions that people have,” Gruber says. “This is one case where it seems like some of the general intuition about Maori and eyebrows really kind of holds up.”
Gesture research is relatively young; there have been only a few studies on eyebrows, none looking specifically at cultural influence. In fact, only within the past few decades has gesture been pursued by linguists as a part of speech, rather than a separate system. Dr. David McNeill, professor emeritus of psychology and linguistics at the University of Chicago, calls this gesture-speech unity, and says via email: “Many (without really thinking) consider gesture an ornament, an add-on to speech. I am saying this is an error: Gesture is as essential to language and speech as sound is.”
King and Gruber, who plan on publishing their initial gesture results later this year, are moving on to some more highbrow research. This time, though, they’ll be looking for individuals willing to have florescent blue brows.
King and Gruber hope their blue-eyebrow study will provide more nuanced clues as to the form and communicative function of eyebrow movement. Gruber says, for example, that our eyebrows often provide a type of meta-commentary on the words we’re actually saying. King and Gruber are trying to determine that, if we raise our eyebrows to emphasize an idea, will we raise our brows even higher if we perceive an idea to be of extra importance? And does this vary by culture?
“Now we’re getting more intricate, where we’re looking at different forms of eyebrow movement: like really subtle little movements, versus very high, arching raises, versus ones with some inward pinch,” Gruber says.
To catch all of this detail, the team is testing a method called chroma-keying, which works by applying a bright blue eyeliner to participants’ brows. This will allow researchers to take a negative of their recordings and eliminate everything that’s not chroma-keyed, almost like using a reverse green screen.
This method will help to create more precise measurements and be less intrusive for participants. Currently, the resulting recordings end up looking a lot like two jumpy neon caterpillars, but Gruber says the procedure is still in its early stages.
On a grander scale, King and Gruber’s research may add to the idea that language runs much deeper than simply the words we speak. Rather, it seems that language is a cultural marker undeterred by geographical or physical boundaries.