A Nice Gesture by Jeroen Arendsen

Various personal interests and public info, gesture, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Category: Animal Gestures 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…

Paro, the Mental Commitment Robot


Paro, a present for some Dutch elderly people (source)

In the local Dutch news I read that another Paro, a robot baby seal, had reached our shores. More specifically, a Paro seal entered the homes and hearts of the good people of verpleeghuis Van Wijckerslooth in Oegstgeest.

It is altogether fitting that Paro has come to Oegstgeest. Oegstgeest is a small and very old town near the coast that rose to fame as the setting of the novel ‘Return to Oegstgeest’ by Jan Wolkers. In the novel Wolkers writes a lot about his love for animals, both the cuddly ones and the less cuddly ones. It makes me wonder what Wolkers, may he rest in peace, would have had to say about Paro…

“Tsja, het is natuurlijk van de gekke dat je 4000 euro gaat betalen voor zo’n in elkaar geflanst stuk mechaniek terwijl je maar de tuin in hoeft te lopen voor de meest leuke beestjes. Maar ik snap het wel hoor. De mensen willen gewoon vertroeteld worden en vertroetelen zonder vies te worden. Ze zouden maar wat graag een robot hebben die de hele dag zijn hygiënisch schone vingertje zachtjes rondpoert in hun kont of hun kut zonder dat ze ervoor op hoeven te staan.”

There is a good deal of thinking behind Paro. For example, the creators at AIST chose the form of a baby harp seal, and not of a cat or dog, because people will not compare Paro to their experience with a real seal (since they probably will not have had a real experience with a live baby seal). Robot cats tend to be perceived as less fun and less cuddly than real cats. I know from personal experience that many people, especially kids, are quite fond of baby seals. We once went to Pieterburen, home of the world’s foremost Seal Rehabilitation and Research Centre. Even though the kids were not allowed to touch any real baby seals they came to love them just by looking at those big eyes and that innocent appearance. And now, with Paro, you can actually touch and even cuddle them without smelling fishy for a week. I guess all signs are ‘go’ for entering a loving ‘mental commitment’, which is at least what Paro is intended for own homepage

“Mental Commitment Robots” are developed to interact with human beings and to make them feel emotional attachment to the robots. Rather than using objective measures, these robots trigger more subjective evaluations, evoking psychological impressions such as “cuteness” and comfort. Mental Commitment Robots are designed to provide 3 types of effects: psychological, such as relaxation and motivation, physiological, such as improvement in vital signs, and social effects such as instigating communication among inpatients and caregivers.

Rather grand claims for a robot that hardly does anything, but so far there have been reports in the news (e.g. here, here, or here) that it does have such positive effects to some extent. Yet, Paro only has a few basic sensors (light, touch, microphone, oriëntation/posture, and temperature). He can only open or close his eyes, move his head and paws a bit and ‘purr’ or ‘cry’. The solution, as always, comes from allowing the power of suggestion to work its magic. Minimalistic functionality leaves room to project feelings, moods, even personality to a robot.

Gesturing Monkeys and Sexual Harassment

Thanks to Alexis Heloir, a fellow PhD working on gestures, for sending me this story: Wild Vervet Monkeys Wreak Havoc in Kenya (or check the BBC which is the source).

The most interesting part of this nice story (which tells of a group of vervets monkeys stealing food from a village and threatening specifically the women) is the following quote:

“The monkeys grab their breasts, and gesture at us while pointing at their private parts. We are afraid that they will sexually harass us,” said Mrs Njeri.

Well, that is an interesting statement by Mrs Njeri. In the picture below you can see vervet monkeys:


Vervet Monkeys (source)

It must be said, these monkeys are not very big and the idea of ‘sexual harassment’ seems to me at first glance to be a tale of imagination gone wild. What are they going to do? Pinch a ladies bottom? Squeeze a boob? Certainly that is as far as they can go? Or is it? Perhaps I am thinking in the wrong direction.

Perhaps sexual harassment is more like psychological warfare? Indeed, wikipedia states on sexual harassment that it can include many types of behavior and has a variety of purposes, most of which appear to be psychological rather than directly involving sexual intercourse. Dominance and humiliation can be important parts of it.

From wikipedia we also learn that Vervets seem to “possess what has been called the “rudiments of language”. Vervet Monkey alarm calls vary greatly depending on the different types of threats to the community. There are distinct calls to warn of invading leopards, snakes, and eagles.”

Now, there is an excellent web page on The Phallic Threat: Giant Penises and Similar Threat Devices. From it, I gather that the idea of a phallic threat is not unheard of, but instead common in both men and monkeys. Specifically on Primata (with a good overview of the Vervet’s signals) it is stated that Vervets have the folllowing use of the penile display.

penile display: This is when an adult male vervet monkey will present his erect penis and scrotum so that a neighboring group will see them (Estes, 1991). This display is used to demarcate territory (Estes, 1991). red-white-and-blue display: This display is used to communicate dominance by one male over another within a group (Estes, 1991). The male walks back and forth with his penis and scrotum in full view for the receiver to see; the sender will encircle the receiver (Estes, 1991). Occasionally the sender will stand on his hind legs and present his penis and scrotum to the receiver (Estes, 1991).

Moreover, the pigmentation of the Vervet Monkey’s scrotum is a vivid blue that pales when the animal falls in social rank. In other words, Vervets may perhaps refer to their dominance over someone else by referring to the color of their genitals.

So now we may have (1) an ability to communicate a variety of messages, (2) a phallic threat with (3) a reference to dominance. Suddenly it is not so difficult to imagine that it is real. Or at least as real as sexual harassment gets. If the monkeys mean to express their dominance, mark their territory or humiliate the women and the women feel dominated or humiliated then that is a successful (if you will pardon the expression) case of sexual harassment.

Unfortunately we cannot be sure of anything from such a distance. The whole story could just be exaggerated. It could even be an excuse for the villagers to start physically harassing the monkeys.

Elsewhere: Atheism Central on this story A YouTube playlist on monkeys and their penal displays The Colobus Trust website, has more info on pest behavior by vervet monkeys

Gesturing Vervets and Sexual Harassment

Thanks to Alexis Heloir, a fellow PhD working on gestures, for sending me this story: Wild Vervet Monkeys Wreak Havoc in Kenya (or check the BBC which is the source).

The most interesting part of this nice story (which tells of a group of vervets monkeys stealing food from a village and threatening specifically the women) is the following quote:

“The monkeys grab their breasts, and gesture at us while pointing at their private parts. We are afraid that they will sexually harass us,” said Mrs Njeri.

Well, that is an interesting statement by Mrs Njeri. In the picture below you can see a vervet monkey next to a couple of children (from the Colobus Trust website, which also has more info on pest behavior by vervet monkeys)


Vervet Monkeys (source)

It must be said, these monkeys are not very big and the idea of ‘sexual harassment’ seems to me at first glance to be a tale of imagination gone wild. What are they going to do? Pinch a ladies bottom? Squeeze a boob? Certainly that is as far as they can go? Or is it?

Perhaps I am thinking in the wrong direction. Perhaps sexual harassment is more like psychological warfare? Indeed, wikipedia states on sexual harassment that it can include many types of behavior and has a variety of purposes, most of which appear to be psychological rather than directly involving sexual intercourse. Dominance and humiliation can be important parts of it.

From wikipedia we also learn that Vervets seem to “possess what has been called the “rudiments of language”. Vervet Monkey alarm calls vary greatly depending on the different types of threats to the community. There are distinct calls to warn of invading leopards, snakes, and eagles.”

Now, there is an excellent web page on The Phallic Threat: Giant Penises and Similar Threat Devices. From it, I gather that the idea of a phallic threat is not unheard of, but instead common in both men and monkeys. Specifically on Primata, it is stated that Vervets have the folllowing use of the penile display.

penile display: This is when an adult male vervet monkey will present his erect penis and scrotum so that a neighboring group will see them (Estes, 1991). This display is used to demarcate territory (Estes, 1991).
red-white-and-blue display: This display is used to communicate dominance by one male over another within a group (Estes, 1991). The male walks back and forth with his penis and scrotum in full view for the receiver to see; the sender will encircle the receiver (Estes, 1991). Occasionally the sender will stand on his hind legs and present his penis and scrotum to the receiver (Estes, 1991).

Moreover, the pigmentation of the Vervet Monkey’s scrotum is a vivid blue that pales when the animal falls in social rank. In other words, Vervets may perhaps refer to their dominance over someone else by referring to the color of their genitals.

So now we may have (1) an ability to communicate a variety of message, (2) a phallic threat with (3) a reference to dominance. Suddenly it is not so difficult to imagine that it is real. Or at least as real as sexual harassment gets. If the monkeys mean to express their dominance, mark their territory or humiliate the women and the women feel dominated or humiliated then that is a successful (if you will pardon the expression) case of sexual harassment. Unfortunately we cannot be sure of anything from such a distance. The whole story could just be exaggerated. It could even be an excuse for the villagers to start physically harassing the monkeys.

Elsewhere:
Atheism Central on this story
A YouTube playlist on monkeys and their penal displays

Red Sea groupers gesture to invite giant moray eels to hunt

It may be stereotyped, genetically programmed behaviour (as my friend GL felt obliged to point out), but the link my roomie Jenneke sent me is still the best case of gesturing fish I have seen (see earlier observations about the John Dory and the Octopus). In a spectacular study Redouan Bshary, Andrea Hohner, Karim Ait-el-Djoudi, and Hans Fricke show evidence of Interspecific Communicative and Coordinated Hunting between Groupers and Giant Moray Eels in the Red Sea. (PLoS Biology)

Say you organized a hunting party, how would you invite your friend the giant moray eel? (source)

Here are the video’s (PLoS Biology):

Video S1. A Grouper Shaking his Head to Invite a Moray Eel Resting in a Cave (1.1 MB WMV)
Video S2. Grouper and Moray Eel Swimming off Together after the Grouper Signalled (2.0 MB WMV)
Video S3. A Grouper Performing a Headstand Shaking of Its Head above the Hiding Place of a Prey That Escaped the Hunt (2.1 MB WMV)
Video S4. A Moray Approaches the Place Where the Grouper Performs Its Headstand Shaking (2.1 MB WMV)

At first sight it appears clear that here we have a gesturing fish. He shakes his head at a moray eel to invite him to hunt. He makes a movement to elicit a response. Does he intend to communicate? Here we face the only problem with calling the grouper’s behaviour gesturing. Can we ascribe intentions to a grouper, a fairly simple organism?

If you are a strict behaviorist and do not believe that the perception of intentionality should be studied at all, feel free to leave the room now. I am at the moment happy to accept human intentionality, and the same goes for apes, dolphins, dogs, and (why not) fish. In fact, in practice I even ascribe intentions to my computer, my car, and basically anything that moves or is suspiciously standing still 🙂

Don’t tell anyone though, I want to keep my freedom.

Reaction by Frans de Waal (PLoS): Fishy Cooperation
Report (Dutch) at Noorderlicht: Jacht op het Rif

The Dolphins Got the Point and Left

Pointing appears ever so natural to us. Everyone points (even though most of us feel it’s rude to point at someone) and you don’t need to learn it, right?


As a young father of two I wonder: Could finger-pointing be innate?

Well, an interesting point is raised by animal studies. Even though chimpanzees follow our gaze it seems difficult to point something out to them, contrary to dogs and wolves. Now, a study pointed out that dolphins understand pointing as well.

If you have read So Long and Thanks for all the Fish it will not surprise you that dolphins understand us. The real question may well be: Why don’t we understand dolphins? (with the possible exception of this guy.)


Dolphins 1 – Chimps 0

Saint Peter Watches Over G8

In a world full of wonders, it is but a small step from a fish called Saint Peter, to the town of St Petersburg, where the G8 is now being held. And joining the online readers today with a nice analysis of the G8 summit body language is Dr Peter Bull of York University (for BBC News).


Well it’s one for the money, two for the show…

Apparently we need hardly listen anymore to what they say. Dr. Phil Peter shows us how we can read the state of interpersonal affairs from a couple of pictures. And I have to say, it really fits well with what I already felt. It’s uncanny, just like when I had my hand read last year.

Do we not simply project
that which we like and expect?

John Dory, a Fish Born to Gesture?

There are many fish in the sea. And when divers come to admire them, it may not just be the divers that gesture. There are some sea creatures, like octopi, squids and cuttlefish that signal through colour changes. Or they blow themselves up in response to perceived threats, like terrorists pufferfish.

But I once heard a very nice story
About a gesturing fish named John Dory
Who when faced with his fate
Goes head on, stays straight
Then flashes his evil eye to thee

I’ve got my eye on you, friend.

Thanks to EA for the links above and below and the following anecdote: When you get near a John Dory he will first face you directly, perhaps hoping you cannot see him because he is so thin. If you come closer still he turns and displays the extra eye on its flank, pretending he is a big fish. It’s a clear signal to bystanders: “Bugger off”.

But beware: “Compared with the variety of human responses, however, that of a fish is stereotyped, not subject to much modification by “thought” or learning, and investigators must guard against anthropomorphic interpretations of fish behaviour.” (but then again, these image scoring fish appear none too backward)

john-dory-fish-born-to-gesture

There are many fish in the sea. And when divers come to admire them, it may not just be the divers that gesture. There are some, like octopi, squids and cuttlefish that signal through colour changes. Or they blow themselves up in response to perceived threats, like terrorists pufferfish.

But I once heard a very nice story
About a gesturing fish named John Dory
Who when faced with his fate
Goes head on, stays straight
Then flashes his evil eye to thee

I’ve got my eye on you, friend.

Thanks to EA for the links above and below and the following anecdote: When you get near a John Dory he will first face you directly, perhaps hoping you cannot see him because he is so thin. If you come closer still he turns and displays the extra eye on its flank, pretending he is a big fish. It’s a clear signal to bystanders: “Bugger off”.

But beware: “Compared with the variety of human responses, however, that of a fish is stereotyped, not subject to much modification by “thought” or learning, and investigators must guard against anthropomorphic interpretations of fish behaviour.” (but then again, these image scoring fish appear none too backward).

Is An Octopus’s Signal in his Shade?

Behold the Octopus. The James Bond of the sea. Ringo Starr once wrote:

I’d like to be
Under the sea
In an Octopus’s garden
In the shade

They pinned a romantic story on him about Octopi being aesthetic collectors. But an Octopus’s garden is no more than the leftovers, the bones, spines and shells, outside a den. Of course, a true romantic could counter that an Octopus picks aesthetic food…

The question I would ask is: does an octopus gesture? First, let us say that the term gesture originated in the distinction between voice and gesture, or oralité et gestualité as the French would say. The pair together refer to our total of communication means. It functions as a rough division of all the ways in which we create meaning for eachother. Since an octopus does not talk we could say that all his signaling behaviour falls under gesture. But that would be a fairly useless statement, unless we add that gesture is reserved to behaviour that is intended to communicate.


Make my day, punk.

At fUSION Anomaly, some gladly accept the linguistic status of the Octopus’s signaling. They even feel it is superior to our own language, which as we all know is strictly limited to our tiny mouths.

What do they do exactly? They change colour and texture (see explanation of chromatophores), they may use polarization of light. But why? Often the colour and texture changes are camouflage, but chey can also indicate arousal and/or threat.

I find it all rather amazing. But then I saw what cuttlefish can do…

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