Bodily Emotional Traces (BET)

Question: How does emotion aid in the co-construction of language for the child who is deafblind? How do we make use of these bodily emotional traces to share an experience with the child?

Bodily Emotional Traces (BET) are emotional memories imprinted in our bodies. The traces of these memories can be expressed later through bodily movements that represent the original emotional imprint left by the event. 

A person might repeat a movement or touch a part of their body that was associated with their emotional tactile experience. For example, a deafblind child touches their head as they recall where dad likes to rub with his hand when they rough house. 

When a child who is congenitally deafblind encounters something new, this event is most often experienced as a  tactile bodily sensation. As the child wonders and reflects on this new experience, her inner voice might momentarily be expressed outwardly through bodily expressions and movement. 

The Coffee Shop

Observation is so important to understanding and co-creating language with a child who is deafblind. Paul Hart shares a wonderful story where he and his staff tried to figure out what a young woman was recalling with a particular movement she would repeat at the coffee shop.

Coffee cup and saucer. CREDIT: LENNY TAM / EYEEM/GETTY IMAGES. Photo taken in New York City, United States

There’s a young woman who I know in Scotland — she went to the cafe most Wednesdays and myself and another colleague took her to this cafe. We had hours and hours of video footage of different trips to the cafe because we were trying to watch language grow from her and how it happened. But one staff member said, “I don’t know what she means when she places her hand like this in my hand. So, she’ll look for my hand and she puts her hand down with that movement and we don’t really know what it means.”

As we went back through hours and hours of video, going back weeks and weeks and weeks, we can begin to understand a bit more about what this gesture means. You see maybe months before that, when she’s had a cup of coffee and it’s placed on the table, then because she is completely Deafblind, she will place her hand on the perimeter of the table and she sweeps her hand until she bumps into the cup. Then she takes the cup and drinks. So, part of our thinking might be, “Well. I wonder in a tactile capacity if that means something to do with drink.” And the reason it was confusing for the staff team is because she had a sign for “drink” already, which would be a standard tactile version of a British sign language sign for drink. And the staff are saying, “If she has that sign for a drink, then why don’t we just use that one?” Then we begin to see there’s a pattern that emerges. If there’s no drink there on the table as the first drink she’s had in the café, she will give us a sign “drink” or a tactile version of that. If she’s finished that cup of coffee and she’s after another cup of coffee, then that’s when this sign was given. There was a sign for requesting coffee, and there was another sign for asking for another coffee. But later is very tactile because it’s exactly the movement she had to do to pick up the coffee.

Gunnar, Johanna and the Advent Candle

In this video we see Gunnar Vege and his baby daughter, Johanna, who was with him as he blew out an advent candle and waved the smoke away. Watch how she recalls this experience later with him.

Jarvis and Tish Talk about the Drum Store

In the following video we are again with Jarvis as he shares his experience of a visit to the drum store with his speech therapist, Tish. This time we will focus on his conversation with Tish. We watch as they co-create language that will be used to add color and emotion to the events of the day. In the serve and return of the conversation, we see Jarvis’ bodily trace as he moves his arms in the same pattern and rhythm that he and Matt had used the day before to beat on the big drum in the store. Tish immediately notices this trace and names it; “You played a BIG DRUM with Matt”. He later responds with understanding when Tish mentions the xylophone. Tish uses tactile sign, big bold gestures, and spoken words as she helps to create language that is both accessible and mutually understood. Tish is also supporting the story’s narrative through the use of tactile symbols. These symbols are Jarvis’ words on the page. They are his literacy.

Bodily EMOTIONAL Traces

One aspect of BET that should be discussed is emotions. In the two videos above, we can observe the emotional aspect of the event. First, Johanna is with her dad, someone she loves and with whom she feels safe. Her senses are being engaged by the firelight of the candles and later by the smoke that curls up when they are blown out. There is probably specific smells that emanate from the candles and Gunnar that are interesting. All of these things might give Johanna an emotional sense of well-being and joy.
For Jarvis, there are other emotions involved in his experience. He feels a little unsure or frightened in the drum store, but also seems to be curious and interested in continuing the exploration with Matt who makes him feel safe. We can see these emotions when he shares the experience with Tish.  He directs her to his preferred topic, the big drum, when she brings up the topic of the xylophone. Then, at the very end of the video, we see how delighted Jarvis is to recall the way Matt changed the rhythm and pace of drumming on the big drum. He also seems especially happy that Tish seems to understand what he is sharing with her.
Emotions are important. It is our job as good communication partners to promote emotions in our interactions. We should also point out that not all emotions are big and dramatic. Some are tender and gentle or subtle. But we influence our communication partners by the sharing of these emotional aspects of an experience and naming them as Tish does with Jarvis.
Science has shown us that memory and emotions are tied together in the function of our brains. When we have an experience, we need to have time to reflect on our feelings or the emotional part of the experience as well as the events that make up the experience. We also benefit when we are given words to label the feelings we have.
Barbara Miles speaks of our need as communication partners to notice and then to “wonder” about what the child experiences which includes not just the event but also the emotions it evokes. Dr. Nielsen talks about the child taking a pause to process an experience and the need for us to let that happen before reflecting back the experience to the child. This includes their emotional response. Dr. van Dijk talks about the need to follow the child’s lead as a way to understand what the child is engaged by in an experience. Gunnar Vege and Bernadette van den Tillaart talk about how the emotional aspects of the experience moves it from something meaningful to something  significant. All of these ideas relates to the emotions the child experiences to some extent and our role to promote emotional responses in the child in all activities.

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