The Point of Pointing

Submitted on Friday, 11/22/2013, at 4:42 PM

Article by Katherine Duke ’05

Photos by Rob Mattson

Human beings seem unique among species in our ability to communicate through words. But what about communication without words—through gestures? When a small child points a finger, or looks where someone else is pointing, in what sense is she engaged in “communication”? Is she using intellectual abilities that go beyond those of a dog or a chimpanzee? How can we tell?

These are a few of the questions examined in “Development of Nonverbal Communication,” an upper-level seminar taught by Assistant Professor of Psychology Carrie Palmquist. The answers are far from clear; different researchers have put forth what Palmquist calls the “three basic theories of animal communication,” and she structures the course around them. The 15 students read and analyze the seminal scholarly articles on each of these theories, as well as the newest papers published in the field. Then, through class discussion, they decide whether the results of each study lend support to one of the three theories.

The “lean” theory holds that animals (and human babies) send signals only by unconscious biological instinct. The “rich” theory posits that communication by animals (and by human children beyond a certain age) might involve sophisticated understandings of the mental states of others and intentional transmission of information. The “intermediate theory” is a compromise between the other two.

Carrie Palmquist in front of a blackboard, with three seated studentsAssistant Professor of Psychology Carrie Palmquist with students in her "Development of Non-Verbal Communication" course

The seminar explores nonverbal communication in bees, dogs, nonhuman primates and typical humans. There’s also one class period focused on studies of the gestures of autistic children, and another devoted to discussing cultural variation: in some societies and ethnic groups, pointing with the hand is considered inappropriate, so people learn to point with their chins or noses or in other more subtle ways. “The interesting thing is that, while hand-pointing doesn’t seem to exist in some cultures, some means by which we refer to objects in the environment exist in pretty much every culture,” Palmquist says. “Even if there are cultural differences, humans are still sort of special, maybe, in terms of wanting to share information with others.”

In addition to introducing them to the most important and most up-to-date ideas in communication theory, the course offers the students, all of whom are psychology majors, a glimpse into how professionals conduct and use social-science research. Guest speakers “visit” the class through video chat to talk about their work in primatology, speech pathology and other careers that require an understanding of nonverbal communication theory. Students edit one another’s writing, post blog entries about the articles they read and spend time in the college’s library to learn how to use its scholarly resources.

Bryson Alef gesturing in front of a projector screenBryson Alef ’14 tells classmates about a recent study of nonverbal communication in young children.

For their final project of the semester, every student must design an observational study, draw up a project proposal and pitch his or her ideas to a “mock grant panel” of classmates. Over Thanksgiving break, each student will conduct a detailed observation of the nonverbal communication behaviors of kids or creatures in their environment. One student, for example, plans to study how her family’s dogs respond to her gestures. Another might observe the kindergarteners in the school where his father is principal. The professor advises students on special challenges and ethical concerns that arise when researching children and animals.

Palmquist is new to the Amherst faculty, having studied psychology and linguistics as an undergraduate at The College of William & Mary and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia earlier this year. This is her first semester teaching “Development of Non-Verbal Communication” at Amherst, but she taught a version of the seminar at UVA in the spring of 2013. “It’s been a real joy so far,” she says of teaching Amherst students. “They help me to be a better teacher by having high expectations of me, and I like to think that I help them to be better students by having high expectations for them.”

In 2014 Palmquist will start bringing student research assistants into her Child Learning and Development (CLAD) Lab in Merrill Science Center. There, she conducts observational studies on preschoolers, to investigate how they interpret pointing in teaching-and-learning exchanges.