'Depictions' play key role in human communication but they're often overlooked, new Stanford research shows

When communicating with others, people often depict things with their bodies and voices to complement their verbal descriptions, yet the study of human communication generally overlooks this dynamic, Stanford psychologist Herbert Clark found.

man with animated face making hand gestures while sitting across from a woman who is laughing

Psychologist Herbert Clark says many ideas are impossible to convey by words alone. Without depictions created with the hands, voice, face, and body, talk would be flat and lifeless.

When talking with others, people routinely describe and point at things, but they also depict things with their hands, arms, head, face, eyes and body – with and without props.

Yet this action of “depicting” or “staging a scene” non-verbally is little understood in the academic world, according to a new study by Herbert Clark, a Stanford cognitive psychologist.

And that is a major failing in the scholarly understanding of human communication and all its nuances, he said. Society needs to better understand the critical role of depicting in how people relate to each other and express themselves, he said.

“Without depictions, talk would be flat, lifeless and sometimes even impossible,” Clark said.

He explained that people often depict a scene to convey meaning in face-to-face communication with others. In fact, depicting is common in everyday conversation and is fundamentally different from verbally describing things, according to Clark.

“Depicting are physical scenes that people stage for others to use in imagining the scenes they are depicting,” he said.

In his study, Clark provided an example of a Hollywood director who stopped in mid-sentence and made a hand gesture to complete his thought about having to stop filming in New York because of some nesting birds: “In L.A., they would have – ” and then he leveled a finger at some imaginary falcons and made a gun-cocking sound.

“Depictions, I argue, are physical analogs of what they represent,” reflecting things that one could actually see, hear, touch or feel, said Clark, the Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology Emeritus.

‘Telling stories’ and emotion

Many ideas are impossible to convey by words alone, Clark said. A great many utterances are actually “composites” involving both depicting and describing.

For instance, tennis coaches don’t describe how to hold a racket or do a backhand return. They demonstrate it. And music teachers often correct their students by playing or singing what the students should have played or sung, he noted.

“And although it takes years for children to tell coherent stories, they have little trouble depicting stories in make-believe play,” Clark wrote.

Moreover, depicting is highly effective in conveying emotion, excitement and empathy, he said.

“In telling stories and passing on gossip, people not only describe, but dramatize what the protagonists said and did, often with passion and attitude. And in apologizing, people not only say ‘sorry’ but add facial gestures that depict their regret,” he wrote.

For his research, Clark collected evidence from a variety of sources, including a musician’s lecture on piano playing and musical tutoring sessions. He then indexed the instances of depiction and describing that occurred during the talks.

Staging a scene

One way of understanding this dynamic, Clark suggests, is that depictions are physical scenes that people “stage” for others to see and witness.

“Staging a scene is the same type of act that is used by children in make-believe play and by the cast and crew in stage plays,” he wrote.

Clark points out that depicting has been distinguished from describing in literary studies for more than two millennia. In Plato’s Republic, physical depictions, or mimesis, was contrasted with verbal descriptions, or diegesis. For Plato, the epitome of mimesis was the theater, where characters routinely made depictions on the stage for others to view.

The study, “Depicting as a Method of Communication,” was published in February in the journal Psychological Review.

Media Contacts

Herbert Clark, Psychology: (650) 725-2431, clark@stanford.edu
Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu