It’s not what you say: Examining the non-verbal behaviours of psychiatrists and patients

There is a pervasive myth that “body language” experts such as those portrayed in TV shows “The Mentalist” and “Lie To Me” can read non-verbal communication with such deftness as to almost know what others are thinking. The truth is far from the case, but large amounts of information are gathered during our dealings with others from their non-verbal cues.

We may also fall prey to our own limitations in perceiving and reading of these cues, with all of the social embarrassment that this can cause. Many studies are beginning to describe some of the neural underpinnings of this, particularly in the study of autism spectrum disorders, with the view that “mirror neurones” fire in concert with our observations of others’ movements (thereby allowing us to perhaps make inferences about their intent, emotional state and future actions).

A recent observational study by Lavelle et al looks at the non-verbal interactions of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and their psychiatrists during consultations (Lavelle et al, 2014). They highlight some of the previous work in this area, which has mainly focussed on the non-verbal profile of patients; going all the way back to the 1940’s concept of “Praecox-Gefühl” (pray-cox-ge-fool) which suggested that there were characteristic observations of behaviour that differed in patients compared to those without a diagnosis.

In their research, Lavelle et al found a dearth of information studying the variability of behaviour over time and the effects within the therapeutic relationship; they therefore decided that their study should also seek to encompass these areas. This seems eminently sensible given that all interpersonal interactions require at least two people, and the behaviour of one may be altered by the behaviour of the other.