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!