What exactly is Coregulation?

I get asked that question whenever I’m explaining my project so here it is for all my blog readers.

If I asked you to list all the communicative acts, it might start out relatively easy. Of course, you would include conversation and writing. Songs, grunts, and grimaces would also go in, and we could agree on a large number of other gestures from O.K signs, to pointing, to blank stares of disinterest. We could even come up with rules to distinguish between acts which are communicative and those that might only appear as such. For instance, we would agree that someone someone bumping into you because they do not see you is non-communicative while someone bumping into you in order to get you to move out their way would be rude, but communicative.

With some work, we could also divide all these communicative acts into various categories. One category might be intentionality, with some acts, such as talking, categorized as intentional, while others, such as flinching, as non-intentional. Other categories might be based on the physical nature, dividing communications based on whether they are sounds (auditory), sights (visual), or the product of touching (tactile). After more work we could even categorize the veracity of the communicative act, whether or not the act communicates something true. In animals, for example, false signals are common. Male chimpanzees become piloerect when aroused (their hair sticks straight out) making them appear larger than they actually are during aggressive interactions. Humans, of course, engage in false communications all the time, from simple white lies to ventriloquism.

Even having this impressive list of behaviors, acts, and categories though, we would still not have really defined communication or gotten down to the question of its inherent nature. At its core, what is communication? It is surprisingly difficult to talk about the nature of communication directly (given that talking itself is a form of communication…) and thus metaphors and analogy are useful. One of the most prevalent definitions of a communication, to summarize, is that which signals something. From the definition we can work out that a communication is transmitted from a signaler to a receiver, and we have begun to use a metaphor based on common everyday technologies. Our computers “communicate” with a printer by coding a signal, transmitting along a USB cable or wireless connection, and then the printer decodes the information and acts on it by printing out the document.

Does this technology metaphor, though, capture all types of communication or reveal its whole nature? Obviously, by asking the question, I think not. Some communications are more aptly described as coregulated, meaning that each participant in the interaction mutually adjusts and regulates their own actions, concurrently “signaling” and “receiving” at the same time. Think of, for instance, an improvisational jazz group. Each player in the group continually adjusts their own playing to the feedback they are receiving from the others. There is not a signaler and a receiver, since everyone is doing both. Similarly, for more sports minded individuals, imagine the actions of a cornerback and wide receiver running in tandem. Both attempt to read their opponent’s action and  then readjust their own rapidly enough to gain an advantage. The mutual adjustments made to account for the the contingency of others is the hallmark of coregulation.

Originally, my research project with white-faced saki monkeys had hoped to find evidence of coregulation in their gestural communication. Now, having reviewed some practice film and done more secondary research, I’m less optimistic. The socio-emotional cognitive capacities needed for coregulation may simply be beyond saki monkeys. Nevertheless, I expect to find interesting use of gesture in the sakis and look forward to finally begin the real filming in the coming weeks.