Letter to Charles Darwin: September 3, 1874

Chauncey Wright

To Mr. Darwin.

CAMBRIDGE, Sept. 3, 1874.

In a late talk with Dr. Gray, he expressed so much interest in certain points of observation and inquiry which I have lately made on the gestures of the head, that I am encouraged to think they will be of sufficient interest to you to warrant my claiming your attention for them. I was led to this subject by my great interest in your principles of expression and a desire to trace them out in new directions, but principally through coming unexpectedly upon the matter from what at first sight seems a remote line of investigation.

For clearness, I ought first to explain this briefly. Many years ago, the problem of the physiological cause of the intensification of the sunset colors, produced by looking at them with the head inverted or much inclined on one side, interested me, and I found that the effect was not due to the position of the eyes, but to that of the images in them, since the same effect is observed in paintings of sunset by inverting the pictures instead of the head ; and, later, I observed that reflections of the colors in a horizontal mirror, or in the surface of smooth water, gave the same result. I then roughly generalized the hypothesis that any distortion of a view, by withdrawing attention from the interpretation of forms, sizes, and distances, or from mensural perception, gave prominence,

( 305) at least, if not greater intensity, to the consciousness of colors as mere sensations. This was in accordance with the recognized principle in psychology that perception and sensation are in inverse relations to consciousness, — "inversely proportioned," as Sir W. Hamilton expresses it; or, as I prefer to state the fact, the consciousness of a sensation as a sign is accompanied by a diminished consciousness of it in its special quality and quantity as a sensation. The application of this principle to the explanation of the phenomena considered was apparently confirmed by a fact which I learned from an artist; namely, that certain defects of form, where colors are not employed, as in crayon portraits, are discovered by artists by inverting their pictures ! For a long time I vaguely associated this fact with the above theory ; but I have lately come to think that the true explanation of the heightening of colors and that of bringing out small defects in form by a change or distortion of aspect are different though analogous explanations ; and this difference seems to promise a useful point in the difficult psycho-physical problem of mensural or space perception.

But I must not stop to explain this here. To pass directly to the matter in hand, the next fact that cane to my notice in this connection was an observation by a gentleman, which I got from him in talk a few months ago. When a boy, he noticed and called his father's attention to the fact that the servant girl, in arranging the furniture of a room or the table, inspected her work critically, not by looking straight at it from various points of view, but askant, and in walking by it. " Was this," he asked, " because the side vision is keener than that of direct looking ? " "Not at all," the old gentleman answered, "for, if I wish to see exactly what time it is, I look straight at the clock; so," —with his eyes directed straight at the clock, but with his head decidedly though unconsciously inclined to one side. On telling this story to a friend, and

(306) mentioning in connection with it the habit of artists of observing their work sidewise for the effects of finishing-touches (one artist, celebrated for his crayon portraits, whom I know, has a mirror at his right into which to glance for the effects of touches ; and lately I read in an English novel how the heroine, being busied with the final touches of a drawing, glanced sidewise at them), my friend remarked that a woman, in examining the fitting and other points of another woman's dress, will turn her head first to one side and then to the other, stepping backwards, and around the object of her inspection.

These facts led me to think that there is a serviceableness or advantage in the side-glance and a meaning in it, besides the sheep's-eye of shyness, or the movement away from direct vision from the desire to conceal the look. A dog, such as the one whose picture you give in Chapter I., under the topic of "Associated Habitual Movements in the Lower Animals," watches for things he is on the alert for, or when in uncertainty about what is going to happen, as when waiting for a gesture of command from his master, —with his head turned so as to raise one eye above the other. But the intentness of watching in simple expectation is effected by direct and level vision, as in the pointer. It occurred to me that, in the case of a woman, as a dressmaker, inspecting another's dress, the movement of the head is possibly in part a true gesture, or expression of critical interest, as well as a really serviceable movement ; and that, as a gesture, it is derived from the serviceable habit, in accordance with your first principle of expression.

I was then led to look for the exhibition of this gesture as a true unmixed one, or as depending merely on association, and as the gesture of critical interest or consideration. Not only are the eyes often half-shut in abstraction or meditation, but the head is often inclined on one side ; and an instance of the lateral movement of the head is incidentally mentioned by you

( 307) where you illustrate the movement of the eyebrow in recollection, — the case of the " young lady earnestly trying to recollect a painter's name, and she looked to one corner of the ceiling, and then to the opposite corner, arching the one eyebrow on that side." Two of my friends show in a very marked manner—so marked that their acquaintances, to whom I have mentioned it, recognize the gesture at once as a characteristic one — the gesture of slow lateral movements of the head from side to side with pauses between, in giving serious attention or consideration to what is said. One of these gentlemen is a professor of law in Harvard University. The other is a grandson of a distinguished professor of theology in the College, of half a century ago, who had the same characteristic movement ; and many now living who remember the grandfather are vividly reminded of him by this characteristic in the grandson. Other instances have occurred to my memory of this habit, which does not seem to me so rare, except in the degree of its manifestation in these two cases, as to be properly called a trick-gesture.

Without giving here the speculation I have pursued on the primary serviceableness of these movements, I will come at once to the matter to which all the above is preliminary. You state, on the authority of Dr. Lieber and Mr. Tyler, that the Turks express yes by a movement like that made by us when we shake our heads. This seemed to me, when I first read it, very strange, and it lay as a doubt in my mind until, on independent grounds, the shake of the head began to have to me the new significance which I have indicated ; and the hypothesis then occurred to me that, in a derived or secondary meaning, it might signify a deliberative or cautious assent, or else an acquiescent deliberation,—besides having the meaning of pure categorical negation it has with us, and the meaning of disapprobation, anger, or threatening it has (as I have ascertained) throughout the East, with the Greeks, Turks, and

(308) Arabs, or Semitics generally, and also had in the East in ancient times. I fortunately bethought me, at this point in my speculation, of an authority who turns out to be a much better one than I had imagined. Professor Sophocles — whose scholarly works, and especially his " Lexicon of Byzantine and Patristic Greek " and his " History of the Greek Alphabet," have given him a great reputation with European philologues—is a native of Greece. His boyhood was passed at his birthplace on one of the slopes of Mount Pelion; and his early youth, in Egypt, at the celebrated ancient monastery at Cairo, of which the superior was his uncle. His education was finished in this country, at Yale College, from which he came to Harvard as a teacher of Greek many years ago. He has been Professor of Greek, Ancient and Modern, here for fifteen years ; and has twice returned since he has been here, for short visits to Greece and travels in the East. But, in spite of all this, I did not at first think that his memory was to be trusted as to the negative fact, on which he has insisted strongly, namely, that the Turks do not signify yes by a shake of the head. It was only by accident, in a second talk with him on this and related subjects, that I found he still retains several characteristic expressions of his native country, and unreflectively makes use of them, with an instinctive sense of their meaning. For instance, he informed me that he frequently finds himself making the Greek sign of simple objective negation (the equivalent of o) ; namely, nodding the head upwards. The cluck which accompanies this gesture among the Greeks and Turks is also used by him sometimes, as I learn from an officer of the College who sees him much oftener than I do. I have got a valuable hint from him as to the fundamental meaning or primary association of the cluck. I had previously noticed, unreflectively, the upward nod,—attaching no significance to it, though the accompanying half-closure and downward looking of the eyes indicated clearly enough the

(309) dissent he was expressing. If I had reflected on the gesture, I should have regarded it as a trick, — a very familiar one to me, as I recognized on his making it and explaining to me its meaning and its origin in his early habits. Another seeming trick was also familiar to me, but is now explained as the common Eastern gesture of beckoning or invitation ; namely, moving the hand towards the body with the palm turned inward, but downward, instead of upward, as with us. A gesture which I had never seen him use unreflectively, but which, as I have since learned, others have seen in him, he explained to me as the Eastern equivalent of snapping the fingers to express contempt, and more abstractly to express minuteness, and secondarily nothing or negation, — namely, touching the upper front teeth with the thumb-nail, and then snapping it away, as if throwing away a bit of the nail.

Remembering that you had found no interpretation for the cluck, which is made by withdrawing the tongue suddenly from adhesive contact with the upper teeth and front palate, I cautiously asked Professor Sophocles, thinking that, as a philologue, he would have ingenious theories on the subject, what, independently of any theory, his sense of the primary meaning of the cluck was, or whether he attached any other meaning to it than that of simple negation. He immediately answered that it meant smallness, being the smallest of vocal sounds ; and he proceeded to compare it to the gesture with the thumb-nail, which he said also meant nothingness or mere negation. We afterwards thought of similar verbal combinations of expression, as in English, " Not a bit," " Not a jot ; " or, in French, ne—pas or ne—point. He says that, among the common people of Greece, as with the shepherds he knew in the mountains, it is common to illustrate stupidity or clownishness in any one by saying of him that he answered a call from a distance, as, "Have you seen my sheep?" with, —and here

(310) the upward nod and cluck are given. The clown should have answered, to make himself understood, by the verbal negation, which in ancient Greek was oxi, and to which the modern negative is similar. The upward nod and the cluck are the equivalent of the pure objective or matter-of-fact negative ; namely, o, or its modern equivalent, but is never used with the particle pig, which expresses the subjective negative ; namely, doubt, disapprobation, warning, or threatening. With this negative, the shake of the head is the only head-gesture. Mr. Sophocles has often seen Turks shake their heads in anger, and to express threats or strong disapprobation ; and this gesture, he says, is universal with the Eastern peoples he knows. This was the case also in ancient times. The passage Matt. xxvii. 39), " And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads," is paralleled by the passages in Psalms, noted in Reference Bibles ; namely, xxii. 7, " All they that see me laugh me to scorn ; they shoot out [protrude ?] the lip, they shake the head ; " and Ps. cix. 25, " I became also a reproach unto them ; when they looked upon me, they shaked their heads." The word in Matthew, translated "wagging," is from sties; and xarassiw "is in sign of disapprobation," according to the Lexicon.

A rapid shaking of the head is a common gesture towards children to express disapproval or warning ; or by them to express dislike or refusal, and seems to be a very natural one ; and, as the equivalent of the subjective negative pig, is not only natural, but also much more extensive than appears when we do not thus limit its meaning. In this meaning, the origin you propose for it, as well as the origin of pvj, becomes the more probable. The repetition and rapidity of the shake appears to give emphasis to its meaning, as reduplications do in the etymologies of vocal signs ; for example, to express perfect past actions. Mr. Sophocles explains the apparent non-comprehension of the shake of the head by the Arabs on

( 311) the Nile, as observed by Dr. and Mrs. Gray, by their interpreting the shake as a threat or wagging, or as an expression of disapprobation, and by their not seeing the applicability of the gesture with this meaning to the particular occasions.

The gesture of objective negation, the upward nod for ov, appears to belong equally to the modern and to the ancient Greeks. Liddell and Scott say dvavstiw, I nod up, is the equivalent in token of denial of our shaking the head. It is opposed to xaravrvw, which expresses hot]) the gesture and the meaning of simple affirmative. Both gestures belong to the modern Greeks as well as to the Turks. Mr. Sophocles has often seen Turks in their cafs, listening to narratives of travellers, as of merchants from the West. Etiquette forbids them to interrupt the speaker by words ; but they express their interest and assent very conspicuously by close attention and by continually bowing their heads with great gravity. If any thing is said, however, to which they arc unwilling to assent, they throw their heads straight back. He assures me that he has never seen them under such circumstances shake their heads. It would not follow that, under other circumstances, they might not use this gesture, and for other purposes than to express anger or disapprobation, though it seems probable that the gesture is not used for simple affirmation.

I have concluded, as to the value of Mr. Sophocles's testimony, that, though it is that of a memory of long-past scenes, and without conscious or designed observation, yet, as coming from his instincts or habitual impressions, it is better than the record of a naturalist would be, who might have misinterpreted the recorded gesture.

In ancient Greek, rvavsfiw and xarevstw are in direct antithesis, and are the names of the gestures as well as of their meanings. 'Entvsw was also used as an equivalent for the latter, though not, Mr. Sophocles says, as a name for the

(312) gesture ; but, according to the Lexicon, it expresses the nod of approval or command. A7rovavm had for a secondary meaning "to refuse by shaking the head." Mr. Sophocles quoted to me from memory a curious passage in an early part of the Acharnians of Aristophanes to the following effect, —but I have not verified it: A Greek countryman is examining one who is really a Greek, but pretends to be a Persian ambassador. To a question concerning the intention of the Persian monarch, the sham ambassador answers by an upward nod. Stage direction, a'vavevet. To the next question, he answers with the downward nod, indicated also by a stage direction, xazevedar. The countryman then says : "He nods like a Greek. I will question him further." This, as Mr. Sophocles remarked, may indicate that in these gestures the ancient Greeks and Persians differed.[1]

Now I was led to all this curious inquiry, as I have said, by a wish to discover the source of discrepancy between the authorities you quote on the affirmative meaning of the shake of the head with the Turks, and that of Mr. Sophocles; and I have conjectured that such a gesture may mean with the grave and reticent Turk either a deliberative assent, or an acquiescent consideration, or an emphatic expression of one or both of these states of mind. The original serviceableness of the movements from which such a gesture might be derived I take to be as follows : When any thing is seen in a natural aspect, or with direct and level vision,— anticipation, or expected and ideally determined looking, may interfere with true objective perception, and produce illusion in respect to slight features of form, or slight changes in form from movement. I call this an effect in perception of ideation. To avoid illusion from such an

(313) effect on minutia and "to see how it strikes the eye," the artist examines his work askant, or by inversion, or by reflection from a mirror; or the watching animal will revolve its head so as to incline the medial plane of vision. The critical state of mind accompanying this serviceable movement will by the directest association tend to produce it, even when the service is very slight, or is of no account; so that the movement becomes a true expression of this state of mind from the very start, and will be a voluntary one whenever sympathy prompts to the expression of critical interest ; as when politeness makes us attend to what is pointed out or submitted to our inspection. It will be made conspicuous, as in the preacher, whenever this state of mind urges to the expression of itself with emphasis, as in solemn asseveration.

I may remark here, by the way, that according to the observation of a very intelligent English lady, long resident with us, who has lately returned from a short visit to England, emphatic expressive movements of the features and head are much more common, especially among women, in America, than in the same classes of persons in England ; apparently, because etiquette does not forbid it here so strictly. The greater animation both in action and in fixed expression of the average American countenance, as compared with the English, has been remarked by others, and I have myself noticed it. We may believe that one of the most direct effects of civilization, or more properly of cultivation, is to make the subjects of it, and especially the subjects of selfculture, seek to difference themselves as much as possible from the manners of the uncultivated, with whom emphatic bodily expression is a prominent characteristic, derived from the savage. The very spirit of refinement, and the end of fine art, appear to be the avoidance of vulgar emphasis ; and to reach the desired effects of it indirectly, by the composition in expression of congruent accessories which are individually

( 314) weak and are the stronger in combination from the beauty of novelty and distinction.

The speculation from which I started on this line of research—namely, as to the cause of intensification in the colors of sunset, when seen by inverted or much distorted vision, and which I for a long time failed to separate by its distinctive marks from the speculation just mentioned, on an effect of ideation—has now assumed for me a new and very great interest. The explanation I have now reached is analogous to the above, but is physiological. Colors are, I believe, not merely reduced from special attention by abstraction when the vision is engaged in mensural perception, or on perspective signs and marks, but are actually not produced in consciousness with the same degree of intensity, I think, for the following reasons : I extend the word "innervation" from its present physiological use, to denote not merely the incitement of motor nerves from the nerve-centres ; but also that of the nerves of tactual surfaces, the retina included, or the action of attention on such nerves in mensural or space perception. This action of innervation wakens up, I suppose, all the nerves of such a surface ; so that single and separate nerves cannot, on account of this division of nerve force, be externally excited to such a degree as when most of the nerves are asleep or inactive. The intensity of a sensation does not depend on the number of nerves affected. The lesion of a single nerve may produce the most intense and all-absorbing pain. Tickling is such an intense sensation ; in it, single isolated nerves or small groups of nerves are externally excited. "The precise point to be touched in tickling must not be known," as you remark. That is, the surface tickled must not be in use for space perception ; which, as I suppose, involves the internal activity, innervation, or incitement of. all the nerves of the surface. Such an attention to any surface as tickling one's

( 315) self implies, is a perceptive use of that surface ; so that, as you also remark, "a child can hardly tickle itself, or in a much less degree than when tickled by another person." This is, I think, because nerve force or nutrition cannot in such a case be concentrated so as to produce intense action in single nerves.

Now I apply this theory of tickling to the passive perception of colors. I suppose the mind to be withdrawn from attention to minute perspective marks by an inverted or distorted vision ; and although the colored lights fall continuously on extended parts of the retina, yet, I suppose, single nerves are accidentally more excited than their neighbors, and draw nerve force or nutrition to themselves. In other words, I suppose nerve force or nutrition in passive sensation to be in unstable equilibrium, and to tend to points in which it is accidentally first excited ; whereas, in the mensural perception of minute space differences and marks, the innervation is uniform and steady. And so I was led to suppose that the intensification of inverted sunset colors is a sort of tickling of the retina. I suppose " innervation " to prevent or check the intensity of impressions in this case, just as "ideation" prevents or checks minute objective perception in other cases of direct and level or ordinary vision.

I studied a few days ago, at the seashore, the effect on an ordinary perspective view of an inverted or much inclined vision, with reference to effects independent of color which were first brought to my notice as objections to this theory. I found that judgments of distance were not, in the gross, diminished, but were, if affected at all, rather increased on the whole ; yet the parts of the vista were roughly grouped, as in a landscape painting compared to a natural scene. Thus, the foreground of grass and shrubs by the shore, the water between them and a distant island, the island itself, and the open sea beyond touching the sky, seemed, compared to the

( 316) continuous natural perspective, so many successive and separate flat plains of the picture. In this case, it was clear that the minute perspective judgments of ordinary vision were much enfeebled.

It had long before occurred to me that painters, who, until lately, in aiming at making their pictures most natural in aspect, have used, instinctively, less pronounced colors than those of natural scenes, have done so on account, I conceived, of the inherent imperfections of the perspective marks and signs of their art, and in order to keep the two kinds of vision in harmony with one another. If I am right in this, the more recent style of painting in vivid colors is in error, unless the beauties of color and atmospheric illuminations are the ends aimed at, as appears to be the case in some of Turner's paintings. But, in this case, the careful and minute rendering of forms, practised by the same school of realists in art, would be an inconsistent aim ; though it might be justified on other grounds than those put forward, — on opposite grounds, indeed ; namely, not of following nature, but imposing what is virtually a new convention, a self-imposed restriction, or condition, within which greater and greater perfection may be sought.

But the most important bearing of this theory, and to me the most interesting, is in consequences touching the empirical theory of space-perception, into which, however, it will not do for me to extend this letter, already, I fear, too promiscuous and too long.


I have just received a curious confirmation of the above theory of affirmative head-shaking from Professor Lowell. He said that, during his late visit to Italy, he frequently noticed (in Southern Italy, he believed) a shake of the head like our negative one which has an affirmative signification, but appears, as he remembers it, to express deliberative assent rather

(317) than simple affirmation. This confirmation was the more valuable, since it was given by him before I had fully explained the points of the above theory, or more than put the problem before him. He suggests, since the population of Southern Italy is a mixed one, and as the Saracens lived there for a considerable time, that this gesture may have come from the East. He also mentioned — what I had before heard described — the habit in the common people of Italy of expressing anger by a rapid shaking of the head. But this gesture is, I suppose, more likely to come from the habits of childhood, or from innate dispositions, than by tradition from the East.

To this admirable letter Mr. Darwin wrote a prompt reply on September 21 ; but, owing to some error in the address of his letter, it did not reach its destination, and was returned to England from the dead-letter office. Mr. Darwin then forwarded it again on January 29, 1875, remarking, in a postscript, "It is by no means worth forwarding ; but I cannot bear that you should think me so ungracious and ungrateful as not to have thanked you for your long letter."

Mr. Darwin had said: " I have read your letter with the greatest interest ; and it was extremely kind of you to take such great trouble. Now that you call my attention to the fact, I well know the appearance of nervous moving the head from side to side when critically viewing any object ; and I am almost sure that I have seen the same gesture in an affected person when speaking in exaggerated terms of some beautiful object not present. I should think your explanation of this gesture was the true one. But there seems to me a rather wide difference between inclining or moving the head laterally and moving it in the same plane, as we do in negation and, as you truly add, in disapprobation. It may, however, be that these movements of the head have been

( 318) confounded by travellers when speaking of the Turks. Perhaps Professor Lowell would remember whether the movement was identically the same. Your remarks on the effects of viewing a sunset, &c., with the head inverted, are very curious. We have a looking-glass in the drawing -room opposite the flower-garden ; and I have often been struck how extremely pretty and strange the flower-garden and surrounding bushes appear when thus viewed. Your letter will be very useful to me for a new edition of my Expression book ; but this will not be for a long time. . . . I dare say you intend to publish your views in some essay; and I think you ought to do so, for you might make an interesting and instructive discussion."


  1.  The passage referred to begins at line 109 in Ribbeck's edition of the play.

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