An acknowledging nod, a gentle smile or a hand pointing the way…all such small things that do so much for us. I remember a poem that my Granni had hanging on the back of her bathroom door – ‘A smile costs nothing but gives much’. I don’t know how many times I have come back to that phrase at points in my life and reflected on the power of a smile, and now I have the neuroscience to back it up. Our brains need connection with others, indeed they literally thrive on it…it’s why social restrictions and isolation over the last 19 months have had such a profound impact on our mental health and wellbeing, and on our capacity to ‘make meaning’.
Although, developmentally, we need exposure to varied language, reciprocal conversation and meaningful experiences, our brains and nervous systems also love the fleeting, momentary non-verbal communication that is shared with others, even complete strangers.
Our brains are shaped, grow and are maintained through interactions and experiences with other brains; we develop the regulatory capacity of our brains through co-regulation (when it’s possible) and we stimulate the productive capacity through co-learning. We make sense of our own world through a shared discourse – the picking up on clues, often non-verbal, from other people that provide either affirmation or disagreement of our own constructed narrative.
I was thinking about this as I stood in a shoe shop recently only to realise that I had contributed to the stress felt by the family being served in front of me. Their toddler had found their shopping trip a little too much and was telling them, in the only way he knew how, that enough was enough and it was time to go home. They clearly felt conscious, and rather flustered, that their child was getting noisier in the shop, so they juggled the conversation that gran should take the child outside. It was only when the noise became fainter that I realised I had not made eye contact or exchanged facial expressions with any of the adults in the family – I had not negatively judged their situation (and had therefore not communicated such judgement non-verbally which would almost certainly have exacerbated their stress), but I had not shared my sense of compassion either as I had been nose down in trying to see if I could find the same heftily priced boots I was holding in my hand for less on Ebay! Would they have left if I had done what I often do in these situations and smiled or scrunched my mouth and cheeks in that, ‘oh it’s tough being two…’ sort of a way? If I had affirmed that shopping with a little one often has a tiny window of opportunity, and that I know what it feels like, would they have relaxed and then the child too? Neurologically, this is what happens…if we can help settle a person, others who are engaged at nervous system level will reap this regulatory reward.
The non-verbal interactions we share with others, which often seem small and insignificant, can literally be nervous system settling and brain building. When we can participate in these interactions, they are good for us all and most certainly contribute to increased resilience throughout a community.
Take the smile from my Granni’s bathroom poem, for example. Evidence suggests that the owner of the smile enjoys a range of benefits, from enhanced positive mood and immune function to reduced blood pressure and stress. But the recipient also benefits – they enjoy momentary calming of their nervous system and a sense that they matter. At a neurological level, this fleeting yet powerful facial contortion helps to soothe their stress and activate parts of their brain to make sense of the interaction or situation. It helps their life continue with an increased sense of ‘it’ll be ok…’.
So, let’s contribute to communities in which our brief non-verbal communications help to soothe and settle nervous systems, and activate brains…help to affirm when life is tough or when things are shared experiences…communicate compassion for situations that are universal and normal. Imagine a community in which we experience an acknowledging nod, a gentle smile or a hand pointing the way everyday?