When it comes to reading behavior, we spend a lot of time on the site focused on the behavior that is driven by the limbic system and how that portion of our brain perceives and responds to the world around us. While it is the limbic system that provides trained observers with the instantaneous, automatic, uncontrollable (and therefore honest) responses we need to make accurate assessments, we can’t ignore the behaviors and gestures that are driven by a different section of our brain – our pre-frontal cortex.
The Pre-Frontal Cortex (the PFC) is the front section of your brain and located right behind your forehead. This is the most advanced part of our brain, our executive center, and the size of the PFC is what separates humans from the other species on this planet (Dowling, pg. 91). The PFC is involved with tasks such as: judgment, choice, planning, motivation, social regulation, humor, and speech (McDonald, pg. 149). In the survival of the fittest environment of the prehistoric times that our ancestors lived in, humans were not at the top of the food chain, and there were a number of predators that were bigger, more powerful, and travelled in larger packs than humans. The reason that humans were able to survive this period of history was because, instead of becoming physically larger to deal with those threats, we became smarter. Our Pre-Frontal Cortex, where “learned behavior” originates from, grew significantly larger than our enemies and, instead of over powering them, we invented things such as the wheel, fire, spears, bows and arrows, and, eventually, gunpowder to level the playing field. This let us compensate for our relatively smaller size and survive. I imagine the world would likely look a great deal different if saber tooth tigers, tyrannosaurus rexes, or sharks had the ability to invent modern tools and weapons.
As our Pre-Frontal Cortex grew larger, humans went through a period of incredible learning and development, ultimately creating numerous languages, the ability to write, design clothing to keep us warm, shelter, and fire in order to increase our chances of survival. Because this is the portion of the brain that we use to learn, it also means we posses a great deal of conscious control over the outputs from the PFC. When we consciously think about what we are saying, consciously decide how to gesture with our hands, or consciously decide what expression we should have on our face, we exert control over the message we are choosing to communicate. The Pre-Frontal Cortex is what allows us to create lies. It allows us to put a smile on our face when we don’t want to offend a family member that serves us a meal that we absolutely hate, and it lets us control what type of body language that we convey. It is because of this reason that we typically choose to discount the messages guided by the PFC. Bad information leads to bad decisions. If we are unable to detect the deception, the risk that we choose a course of action based on incorrect information or assumptions can have consequences.
The Pre-Frontal Cortex is also responsible for the cultural differences we encounter as we travel the world because people in different countries learn differently, have different priorities, and, at times, different body language than what we have learned growing up in America. These differences in learned behavior are often grouped together in the behaviors referred to emblems. Emblems are gestures that replace speech and can be used to control direction of movement (come here or go away), approval/disapproval (thumbs up or middle finger), greeting/departing (waving hello and goodbye) or to communicate your current emotional state (anger or happiness). What makes emblems difficult to learn is that they are different everywhere that you go. These are culturally and geographically unique and how people in one corner of the world tell you how to stop without using words could be dramatically different than in another country.
Understanding how the Pre-Frontal Cortex controls and influences behavior is a key step in observing and assessing those around you. While there is the possibility that PFC-influenced behavior is being used to deceive you and communicate false message, taking the time to learn how locals use emblematic gestures to communicate can help you interact in a country where you are not fluent in the local language and don’t have the support of an interpreter or translator.
– Dowling, J. E. (1998). Creating Mind: How the Brain Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
– MacDonald, M. (2008). Your Brain The Missing Manual: How to Get the Most From Your Mind. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.