The language of life – Silent messages (2017)

Sophie Scott

Sophie Scott looks at the silent communication in the animal kingdom.

Watch time: 59:02

Lecture 2 - Silent messages

Sophie Scott's investigation of silent messages begins with the smells that animals and even plants produce to communicate with each other or to send information, from plant pheromones to a snake's forked tongue and how dogs use their sensitive noses to explore the word.

It's not all about smells, some species have harnessed bacteria to generate light and light messages are used by some insects and deep-sea fish for a range of reasons including attracting prey.

Exploring how body language communicates huge amounts about us and other species, Sophie shows why a dog's wagging tail does not always mean it is happy and how humans can tell a lot about someone's state of mind from their posture alone. She reveals why yawns and smiles are contagious and how this can play a key role in social bonding and cohesion.

In a glimpse of how we might send messages silently in the future, Sophie also explores the possibility of direct brain-to-brain communication. Could the science fiction idea of telepathy ever become reality?


In our 2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES, Sophie Scott explores how laughter provides a link to our animal past, how our voice box has changed the shape of our faces and why we sound the way we do. She also uncovers the hidden code of communication, the more secret and sometimes more sinister side of human interaction – everything we say without opening our mouths – from contagious behaviours to the emotional clues in smell, and whether information wired directly into our brains is really a future we want.

Sophie shows how one of the biggest puzzles in science – how and when humans first evolved language – reveals the huge amount of raw brain power and sensory skill needed to understand even a simple sentence and how we convey as much meaning through our tone, pace and pitch of voice as we say with our words.

Along the way, the lectures reveal a modern-day return to classic television moments from past Lectures such as Sir David Attenborough’s The Language of Animals from 1973, and even attempt a world record. 

2017 CHRISTMAS LECTURES supporters