Do Hand Gestures Help Us Think?

I’ve noticed that people use gestures when they talk, even more frequently than they’re aware.  Anywhere from day to day conversations, to candidates’ speeches,  to a teacher giving a lecture, to working out a math problem, etc. these gestures all express information.  Even add information that accompanying words lack.  So this natural representation of thought when communicating always leads me to wonder why we use our hand gestures really do help us think?  First, I looked into studies, such as Raedy Ping and Susan Goldin-Meadow‘s, that claimed hand gestures aided communicative situations.

Communicative situation #1:  One of the most frequent circumstance in which hand gestures are used is between parents and children.  Such as recent research on “nonverbal pointing behaviors” playing a role in children from three- to five-years-old stages of word learning.  Between two observational experiments they demonstrated that children better understood videotapes of a mother making nonverbal pointing behaviors (gestures).  Another mechanism with the children participating rather than just observing proved the “findings to naturalistic, face-to-face interactions” of gestures.  In the end, these results are pretty broad, so further analysis beyond just a verbal message may be needed.

Communicative situation #2:  Another common instance in which hand gestures are used is between students and teachers.  Students on a daily basis learn from information conveyed in gestures.  For example, math.  160 third and forth graders determined so by being taught a problem-solving strategy with no gestures, gestures explaining the strategy, or non-relating gestures to the strategy.  Basically, the data showed that the strategies using gestures had an “active hand in learning”.  Communicative situation #3:  Lastly, in 1996, Kirsh’s study guided multiple others to show that a “hands condition” confirmed to be more efficient and accurate of adding the value of coins scattered across a surface opposed to a “look only” condition.  Until Kirsch’s repeated experiment in 2007, the benefits and costs of direct gestures, such as pointing, increased both accuracy and speed with a micro genetic analysis of their problem solving strategies.

In fact, another one of Kirsh’s studies found significant data and strategies demonstrating that hand gestures do aid us think.  In a section of Proceedings of the Seventeenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, he defines a complementary strategy as simply the use of our hands to “reduce cognitive load”.  So this could be your typical pen or pencil, hands or fingers, or any other measuring device.  Which we all tend to use to write things down, arranging in a certain position, as a pointing tool.  It’s simply a way we use our gestures to help “perception, memory, and attention”.  And in general, to think.

How can these particular studies’ positive results explain the say so link?  They all provide experimental evidence that gestures do help us to think, cognitively.  Potential confounding variables, like gender, education level, home environment, etc. and small sample size influenced across all results.  However, since the varying situations never varied in results, encourages comparison between many learning situations and environments.  As a matter of fact, even a cross-cultural study used gestures as a successful comparison tool between analogs in the U.S., Japan, and Hong Kong middle schools.

It’s safe to say that all those years of learning how to count with your fingers actually ended up helping us more than we thought.  Now it’s almost impossible to go a day without doing some sort of gesture to aid your mind’s busy thinking.  No matter the hand gesture, even if it’s still using your fingers to count… at least it helps you think!

3 thoughts on “Do Hand Gestures Help Us Think?

  1. Holly Rubin

    As a kid and even know I find myself talking with my hands. I was never sure if I did it just because I adapted to doing it from watching everyone around me talking with their hands or because it was actually helping me process and think. I find when I use my hands to talk, I am able to get all the words out better and faster. Especially after drinking a few cups of coffee, I tend to talk with my hands which leads to me talking very fast. Could the amount of energy that your body has be a confounding variable?

  2. Stephanie Michelle Friedman

    Going along with what Rana is saying I feel as if hand gestures are very loud when somebody is talking. I for one use my hands a lot while speaking and I feel like helps me elaborate the point at which I am trying to reach. I also like the way your blog is set up and pointing out all of the facts/different studies in different paragraphs. You also did a nice job pointing out all of the variables and using vocabulary Andrew uses in class. This topic is very interesting and I find it cool that gestures really do aid in our thinking.

  3. Rana Mohamed

    Your blog focused on using hand gestures in conversations (parent to kids and student to teachers). To add to your blog, I researched the the effects of hand gestures in speeches. We all see hand gestures being used in political speeches, etc. According to Psychology Today, the use of hand gestures shows that the speaker is honest and open with the audience. If they do not use hand gestures then they look indifferent to the audiences. I believe that hand gestures speak louder then words. At the end of the day, the audience will not remember your words, but how you made them feel.

Comments are closed.