**Buck on Symbolic Communication and Emotions



Buck, Ross

The Neuropsychology of Communication:  Spontaneous and Symbolic Aspects

Journal of Pragmatics 22 (1994) 265-278


“two interacting ‘streams’ [of communication]  spontaneous emotional communication vs. intentional, prepositional symbolic communication. (Buck/nc/265)”

says there is “intrinsic joy that comes from linguistic inspiration, innovation, and imagination.  (Buck/nc/265)”

says that “emotional forces invigorate the learning of language and infuse its application with intensity and energy. Language is steeped in emotion:  its creative utilization results in elation and its abuse or interference in acute frustration, bafflement and perplexity.  This paper suggests that one source for the strong motivational-emotional forces that are involved in linguistic competence and proficiency comes from spontaneous emotional communication.  (Buck/nc/266)”

Spontaneous communication employs species-specific expressive displays in the sender that, given attention, activate emotional preattunements and are directly perceived by the receiver. The emotional displays and preattunements on which spontaneous emotional communication is based have evolved as phylogenetic adaptationsThe ‘meaning’ of the display is known directly by the receiver, just as given attention the feel of one’s shoe on one’s foot is known directlyThis spontaneous emotional communication system constitutes a conversation between limbic systems [italics are the author’s] that occurs simultaneously and interactively with symbolic communication.  It is a biologically-based communication system that involves individual organisms directly with one anotherthe individuals in spontaneous communication constitute literally a biological unit (Buck and Ginsburg, 1991).  (Buck/nc/266)”

This  would suggest that the only thing that could interfere with this communicative ability would be some biological defect or flaw within an organism that would prevent this process from being able to operate.

How mature are the limbic structures at birth?  Is this author assuming that “all goes right” and these structures “naturally” develop according to evolutionary plan?  What if they don’t, and this communication cannot be discerned?  Do these preattunement abilities exist at birth so that they cannot be altered, yet they only perceive the “basics?”

This cannot assume that we have any conscious ability from birth to understand these communications on any cognitive level.  Our perception could be emotional and automatic only.


“Spontaneous communication…is

++ (a) biologically-based in both its sending and receiving aspects,

++ (b) in no way intentional,

++ (c) composed of signs which are externally accessible aspects of the referent, and

++ (d) nonpropositional.

Spontaneous communication is the communication of feelings and desires:  of emotional and motivational states (Buck, 1984).  (Buck/nc/266)”

“Spontaneous communication serves as a communication process in its own right, involved in the communication of emotional meaning:  it may also provide an essential motivating force underlying all communication behavior.  [nervous system to nervous system]  The direct involvement with the other intrinsic to spontaneous communication represents an attachment that may satisfy deeply emotional social motives.  (Buck/nc/266)”

This would suggest that if we have, from birth, the genetic ability to engage in spontaneous communication – direct engagement with another – then we have from birth the ability to attach.  Is this “empathy?”  Can this be taken from us?  Isn’t it more of a potential only?  If it requires the development of limbic circuits postnatally, and if our attachment relationships build these circuits, then if they go awry doesn’t, also, the ability to engage in this basic communication (and attachment itself) also go awry?

What are these “deeply emotional social motives?”


“Symbolic communication (including verbal, linguistic communication) is

++ (a) learned and culturally patterned,

++ (b) intentional at some level,

++ (c) composed of symbols which have arbitrary relationships with their referents, and

++ (d) propositional.  (Buck/nc/266)”


Is Buck aware of the fact that the very structures that we are supposed to “have” in order to process this spontaneous communication are themselves created in the first place through and by our first communication experiences?  The instrument of perception and communication is engineered and created BY THESE VERY COMMUNICATIVE INTERACTIONS.

This is perhaps the most fundamental “Catch 22” known on earth!  If the necessary limbic structures are intact at birth and NOT influenced by our caregiver interactions, then spontaneous communication can be said to be determined by phylogeny.  If they develop postnatally, they are NOT phylogenic.  Huge difference!


“…interaction of special-purpose processing systems (SPPSs) and general-purpose processing systems (GPPSs) that occurs in a developmental context (Buck, 1991a).

SPPSs are structured by phylogeny:  that is, they are phylogenetic adaptations evolved to perform specific functions.

GPPSs in contrast are structured during the course of ontogeny by the individual’s experiences:  they (Buck/nc/266) involve classical conditioning, instrumental learning, and higher-order cognitive processing.  (Buck/nc/267)”

They involve a lot more than this!  The neurochemistry of early communications and attachment experiences physically FORM the brain and determine specifically how phylogenetic factors manifest themselves.

These early communication experiences literally form the limbic structures that perceive them.  They cannot be separated from one another.

Maybe it’s like the analogy of the path that Siegel used.  The potential for the pathway is there, but it isn’t until someone begins to walk on the path that the actual pathway is created.

Buck talks bout the interaction of “hardwiring” and flexible aspects of the system that are subject to “learning.”  But he is not saying to what extent the ability exists at birth or about the fact that experiences postnatally are forming the hardwiring.


“SPPSs are seen to be biologically based, phylogenetically structured, and pancultural:  each is based upon a neurochemical system that is, in principle, identifiable within the brain.  (Buck/nc/267)”

That may be true for other systems, but the limbic systems are built through early communication interactions.

“However, the child learns ABOUT the feelings and desires engendered by these systems in culturally-variable ways in the process of EMOTIONAL EDUCATION.  Emotional education is based upon emotional communication.  (Buck/nc/267)”

“EMOTIONAL COMPETENCE is the ability efficiently to deal with the ‘internal environment’ of one’s own feelings and desires….  It is the natural result of accurate emotional communication during development.  (Buck/nc/267)”

Well, that’s the simplest way to put it, but not informative.  The accuracy of the emotional communications one has with caregivers from birth constructs the neurological structures that emotions come from, as well as constructs the neural structures that regulate emotions and the nervous system.



preattunements – biologically-based tendencies to ‘know’ directly the ‘meaning’ of displays”  (Buck/nc/267)”

Le Doux’s work:  auditory system – sensory pathway from the cochlea to the thalamus, from “there this pathway projects directly to the amygdalae, where it is responsible for conditioned emotional response (CERs):  ie. blood pressure and behavioral freeze responses conditioned to auditory stimuli )LeDoux, 1986).  Other studies have found direct sensory input to subcortical and limbic system structures, including projections from the retina direct to the hypothalamus (Pickard and Silverman, 1981).  (Buck/nc/268)”



re preattunement:  “…there is evidence of a heightened readiness to respond to angry faces:  angry faces ‘pop out’ in a field of other expressions while happy faces do not (Hansen and Hansen, 1988).  (Buck/nc/268)”

“Ohman has argued that preparedness allows a “preattentive stimulus analysis” that is a “fast, involuntary, holistic, and automatic analysis of an emotionally relevant stimulus” (1986:  138).  (Buck/nc/269)”




“All motor output from the higher centers passes through the facial nucleus [in the brain stem] on the way to the facial nerve which innervates both the muscles underlying facial expression and those involved in vocalization:  the lips, tongue, and larynx.  Direct input from pyramidal fibers from the motor neocortex are responsible for the production of intentionally formed vocalizations, including the vocalizations of human speech.  This voluntary formation of vocalizations is termed voluntary expression formation and is unique to human beings (Jurgens, 1979; Ploog, 1981).  (Buck/nc/270)”

This is describing the hierarchal organization of displays

“There is another sort of input to the facial nucleus that appears to be responsible for spontaneous vocalization.  This comes from a region of the midbrain – the caudal periaqueductal gray and laterally adjacent tegmentum between the inferior colliculus and brachium conjunctivum – that is known as the limbic midbrain area because limbic system structures project directly into it…..  Jurgens and Ploog suggest that this area contains organized ‘hard-wired’ patterns or SPPSs which underlie species-specific vocalizations, which can be selected and triggered by influences from the limbic system (Ploog, 1992).  (Buck/nc/270)”

“Limbic system structures, when appropriately stimulated, also produce vocalizations:  this is spontaneous emotional expression.  Such stimulation also activates other kinds of emotional behavior:  goal-directed attack, flight, courting, etc. behavior as well as psychophysiological (autonomic, endocrine, and probably immune system) responses.  These limbic system structures are associated with the primary motivational-emotional neurochemical systems, or PRIMES, underlying not only spontaneous emotional expression, but affective experience and psycho-physiological responding as well (Buck, 1985).  (Buck/nc/270)”

What is “appropriate subjective affect?”

“In general, lesions or stimulation which produce experiential effects in human beings (emotions, memories, etc.) appear to require limbic system involvement (Gloor et al., 1982).  (Buck/nc/271)”


“Jurgens and Ploog found another brain region which, when stimulated, produces emotional vocalizations.  This is the…anterior cingulated cortex and supplemental motor area in human beings….  Jurgens and Ploog suggest that these areas of the cortex project to the midbrain area to produce a system of voluntary expression initiation in which the individual controls voluntarily emotional vocalization in the absence of actual emotion.  This would allow the individual to, in effect, lie convincingly concerning its own motivational-emotional state.  (Buck/nc/271)”



This section makes me wonder about mother and “pretend mode thinking,” where nothing was real to her, really everything was a staged play.

“Acting is in many respects a process of voluntarily expressing emotion, and it is of interest that two major ‘schools’ of acting – Stanislavsky or ‘method’ acting and classical acting – can be roughly compared to spontaneous expression and voluntary expression initiation, respectively.  In Stanislavsky acting the performer strives actu- (Buck/nc/271) ally to experience the emotion being portrayed, by trying actually to feel as the character would feel.  In effect, there is an attempt to use imagery and memory to ‘turn on’ the appropriate neurochemical systems, so that the display will be truly spontaneous.  In classical acting the performer eschews such affective manipulations and yet can control the display very effectively, possibly via voluntary expression initiation.  (Buck/nc/272)”

Cindy told me something about them studying the brain wave patterns of actors portraying mental states like Hugh Hefner’s or Dustin Hoffman’s in Rain Man – that the actor’s brain waves match those who actually have bipolar or autism –

So there’s a neurobiological basis for being able to tell a lie – and is this related to the inability to know if somebody is lying?  I know the experts say we are supposed to learn early on if a face is trustworthy.  Are these abilities related?

Is this related at all to avoidant patterns where they could possibly “lie convincingly” to portray an emotion if they had to, even though their real emotions are either unconscious or nonexistent?

And how might this be related for those of us who have been dissociated – and therefore supposedly “numb?”  Are these all related to these brain structures, or entirely different ones?

Lying, by definition, would denote/connote the use of words.  It also, evidently, has to do with an ability to separate “true” emotions from the act of communicating the lie.  Lying represents an awareness that one has efficacy in some way so that they know, through intention, that they have the ability to manipulate their environment – particularly people.  Lying, to me, would very seldom involve empathy.  Mostly I would think that lying would be a narcissistic way to protect self and/or get what one wants.

Is it a form of pretend mode thinking?  And did my mother do it?  I don’t know that I have any memory of when she would have told a lie – other than the fact that her life was a lie that she didn’t know about.

How about psychopaths?  Do they know when they are lying?  Do they have self awareness or self reflectiveness?

So we are the only species on earth that has the dubious distinction of being able to divorce our expression and communication from how we are actually feeling – to deceive other members of our species.  This makes me wonder if this ability alone is at the root of all of our psychological defenses.  We can split off what is really going on inside of ourselves and “act as if” something entirely different is happening.  It has to be related to pretend mode thinking (denial).  That would allow a mind like my mother’s, like all of ours’ to some degree, to project out into the world and onto others parts of ourselves that we cannot digest or metabolize, integrate or accept.  Personally I do not see integrity in lying.  It seems that to be in alignment between our true selves and our actions would be preferable to “faking it” for any reason – except for basic survival – which is how and why this human ability must have evolved in the first place.  Or it wouldn’t have.

What about the deceptions some creatures use – like feigning injury to lure predators away from offspring, or like camouflage – even a moth or a lizard can use this one.  But their deception is not deliberate in that they consciously choose to use it.  It is instinctive and automatic.

So what about my mother’s kind of deception? It appears that it was at least unconscious and automatic.  Is there a point where humans revert back to some instinctual kind of deceptiveness when they feel endangered and threatened?



“LeDoux (1986) emphasizes the inferior parietal lobule (IPL), which is present in rudimentary form in nonhuman primates but is more developed in human beings.  On the left side, the IPL is part of the posterior language area, bordering Wernicke’s area; on the right side it is associated with spatial processing.  The IPL receives both highly processed sensory input and input from limbic structures, and LeDoux suggests that it plays a major role in neural connections between emotion systems and language (Geshwind, 1985; LeDoux, 1982).  (Buck/nc/272)”

“There is evidence in humans and other primates for a lack of functional linkage between limbic structures in the left and right emporal lobes, including the left and right amygdala and hippocampus (Demeter et al., 1991; Wilson et al., 1990; 1991).  Instead, the temporal limbic system is preferentially connected to the ipsilateral neocortex; that is, right to right and left to left (Doty, 1991).  The result is a lateralization of the emotional functions of the temporal limbic system (Ross, personal communication, 1992).  (Buck/nc/272)”

“This lack of connection has important implications for the understanding of relationships between emotion and language.  It implies that any connection between emotion systems and language via the IPL generally affects the limbic system on the left side.  This apparent lateralization of the language-emotion connection in primates takes on added significance because many subcortical systems associated with emotion appear to be right-lateralized.  This includes major noradrenergic and serotonergic systems thought to regulate mood, as well as reward systems (Glick et al., 1980; Oke et al., 1978; Tucker, 1981).  Thus, the left limbic system may be more closely associated with language; the right limbic system may be better connected with subcortical neurochemical systems associated with emotion; and the lack of connection between right and left temporal limbic systems may exacerbate the resulting lateralization of emotional processing. (Buck/nc/272)”



catecholamines dopamine (DA) and noradrenalin [sic] or norepinephrine (NE)

“A major hypothesis in this area states that the catecholamines dopamine (DA) and noradrenalin [sic] or norepinephrine (NE) are closely associated, in interaction with other neurochemical systems, with an elation-depression continuum of behavior and affect (Schildkraut and Kety, 1967).  Specifically, high levels of these neurochemicals are associated with mania and subjective euphoria; low levels with sadness and depression.  (Buck/nc/273)”


“Another major area of study in the neurochemistry of emotion involves the effects of peptide neurohormones; peptides that act both like hormones and neurotransmitters (see Bolles and Faneslow, 1982).  Peptides are chains of amino acids which appear to fuction [sic] by the shape of the molecule; they fit into special receptor sites like keys in a lock.  They are ancient substances:  peptides such as ACTH endorphin and insulin have been found to exist in single-celled protazoa [sic], and they appear to be involved in the most primitive forms of intracellular and extracellular communication (Niall, 1982).  Significantly, they are also closely associated with emotion:  particularly its subjective experience (Pert, 1985; see Buck, 1988 for a review).  (Buck/nc/273)”

“among the most well-known peptides are endogenous opiates, or endorphins.  Opium, morphine, and heroin have their analgesic and euphoric effects due to their mimicking of the natural effects of endorphins.  Other emotion-relevant peptides include Substance P, which mediates pain messages in the spinal cord; CCK, which acts centrally in the regulation of appetite and peripherally in digestion; the ‘anxiety peptide’ associated with experiences of fear and anxiety; oxytocin which acts centrally in inducing maternal behavior and peripherally in releasing milk [and is released during intercourse in both sexes]; and CRF which acts centrally in facilitating avoidance behavior and peripherally in releasing ACTH (Buck, 1988).  (Buck/nc/273)”


“In conclusion, there is evidence that both displays and preattunements are associated with potentially specifiable neurochemical systems.  There is also evidence that these systems are lateralized in the human brain.  (Buck/nc/273)”


“…the well-known lateralization of language functions in the human brain is accompanied by a lateralization of emotion.  (Buck/nc/274)”

“In most persons linguistic competence is associated with left hemisphere (LH) functioning, but the RH has cognitive capacities of its own.  Tucker (1981) termed RH cognition ‘syncretic’:  a holistic and synthetic fusing of sensory and cognitive elements into a global experience, as opposed to the linear, sequential “analytic cognition’ associated with the LH.  (Buck/nc/274)”

“…there is evidence that in human beings the RH and LH play markedly different roles in communication:  the LH has been associated with symbolic propositional communication, the RH with spontaneous emotional communication (see Tucker, 1986).  (Buck/nc/274)”

“…RH damage has been shown to produce deficits in spontaneous communication.  (Buck/nc/274)”

“…RH damage produces deficits in emotional communication – specifically in the emotional prosody of the voice….(Buck/nc/275)”

“There is also evidence of reduced autonomic activity to emotional stimuli in RH damaged patients (Caltagirone et al., 1989).  (Buck/nc/275)”



“We have seen that there is plentiful evidence that displays and preattunements to displays are based upon potentially specifiable neurochemical SPPSs.  There is also neurological evidence for three sorts of communication:

++ (1) spontaneous and nonvoluntary;

++ (2) voluntary but using biologically-based displays (voluntary expression initiation);

++ (3) voluntary and using culturally-based symbols (voluntary expression formation).

Also, there is evidence of a lateralization of emotion systems in primates that may be correlated with the evolution of language, and of differential RH and LH involvement in spontaneous and symbolic communication.  The relationship of language and emotion remains poorly understood, but it seems clear not only that linguistic communication is accompanied by ‘streams’ of emotional and emotive communication but that linguistic communication itself has deep emotional roots that may be provided in part by spontaneous emotional communication.  (Buck/nc/275)”  [I don’t think they made this last part clear at all!]


So in some ways 13 years ago these authors are, in effect, breaking a road of understanding by running the big Catepillars through the woods of ignorance.  But there must be much more recent and specific information available on the neurochemistry of communications.




2 thoughts on “**Buck on Symbolic Communication and Emotions

    • Well, having looked at every part of the book I can access online I have decided to purchase ASAP. Even without the heavy hitter developmental neuroscience docs being present in the biblio, like Allan Schore and Daniel Siegel, your theory sounds like something I need to know about. Thanks again for stopping by with the pub info.

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