A Decade of Research Exploring Biology and Communication: The Brain, Nervous, Endocrine, Cardiovascular, and Immune Systems

Article excerpt

The study of communication has come a long way since Aristotle's conceptualization of persuasion in Rhetoric from the 4th century B.C. Today, scholars conceptualize communication in much more comprehensive ways than did those Greek Aristotelian philosophers. Still, much of the discipline of communication focuses on the way that messages have an impact on individuals or societies. Since the late 1970s a small group of communication scholars, greatly influenced by their peers in other social-science disciplines (i.e., psychology) began to direct their attention to the way that communication influences and is influenced by processes in the human body.

During the early 1990s, a group of researchers proposed a set of meta-theoretic axioms leading to the goal that specific theories could be generated related to the ways that the human body influences communicative messages and behaviors (Beatty, McCroskey, & Pence, 2009). These researchers called this set of propositions a communibiological paradigm (see Beatty, McCroskey, & Valencic, 2001). While we are not going to belabor each of the major premises of this paradigm, it is important to recognize these propositions, as they relate to this review:

Proposition 1: All mental processes involved in social interaction are reducible to brain activity.

Proposition 2: Communicator traits and temperament characteristics represent individual differences in neurobiological functioning.

Proposition 3: Individual differences in the neurobiological systems underlying communicator traits are principally (but not completely) inherited.

Proposition 4: Dimensions of situations have only negligible direct effects on behavior. (Beatty et al., 2009, pp. 5-12)

For many scholars operating from social construction paradigms, these propositions seem rather controversial with allegations ranging from these being overly deterministic (Condit, 2000) to being based on inadequate analysis of prior research findings (Nelson, 2004). Nonetheless, the original communibiology scholars argue that these propositions are "an alternative to the purely situational paradigm that began to dominate behavioral science" (Beatty et al., 2009, p. 14) and that these propositions only illustrate that communication behaviors may be explained through both proximal or distal biological influences.

Based on these points, we present the following review of recent and relevant literature on the biological dimensions of human communication. To start our review, we examined every issue of the top 20 communication journals (according to the Thompson Reuters Social Science Citation Index) beginning with issue one in 2001 through the most recent issue of 2011. We identified those articles that deal specifically with communication and biology. It was important for us to only include articles that dealt with physiology and not self-reports (e.g., self-reports of stress were not included, but physiological analyses of stress hormones were). Studies within the communibiology paradigm either focus on the direct effects of communication on markers of physiological health, or utilize physiological outcome measures as indicators of psychological processes. For example, scholars may utilize measures of heart rate to suggest the direct effect of an interaction on cardiovascular health or they may use heart rate as a measure of arousal (indicative of increased cognitive processing of a message). In both cases, physiological measures are primarily employed as outcome measures in such studies. on rare occasions, communication scholars look at physiology as the independent variable where health (such as breast cancer diagnosis) affects the process and nature of peoples' communication (e.g., Manne et al., 2004). We have omitted cases such as these where researchers did not directly manipulate or measure biological or health variables. Nevertheless, we would be remiss if we did not note that there is an extensive literature exploring the direct effects of health on communication. …