Gesturing helps you think

Talking with your hands as you speak helps you get your point across to the people you're talking to. But new research suggests gesturing can help you think too. For example, students who gestured while discussing math problems were better at learning how to solve the problems. (And no, they weren't counting on their fingers.) Now, researchers from the University of Chicago and University of Iowa are trying to figure out the relationship between gestures and abstract mental processes. From Scientific American:
The new study... focused on third and fourth graders solving a problem that required grouping. Students who are coached to make the "v" gesture when solving a math problem like 3+2+8 = ___+8 learn how to solve the problem better. But students also do a better job even if they were coached to make the "v" shape under the wrong pair of numbers. The very act of making the "v" shape introduces the concept of "grouping" to the student, through the body itself.

But what, exactly, was the process that made this possible? During the study, all of the students memorized the sentence "I want to make one side equal to the other side." They were then asked to say the sentence out loud when they were give a problem to solve. The authors suggest that students who also gestured attempted to make sense of both the speech and gesture in a way that brought the two meanings together. This process, they suggest, could crystallize the new concept of "grouping" in the student's mind.

The same process could occur in any situation where the person who is speaking and gesturing is also trying to understand - be it remembering details of a past event, or figuring out how to put together an Ikea shelf.
With a wave of the hand


  1. not a surprise. we’ve been communicating with each other in ASL for generations, and the deaf people who didn’t learn sign language (imposed oralism) are in most cases socially & emotionally disadvantaged.

  2. I do these ornate gestures whenever recalling something difficult, making me look like I’m casting a magic spell or doing a type of interpretive dance.

    Good to know I’m not totally out there, at least on this one.

  3. I gesture a lot when I talk. A lot. It is apparently scary for some people, especially the two handed arms akimbo with props gestures, but whatever. I have noticed that when I don’t I don’t speak as well, but I attributed it to me being nervous or trying to look good at an interview or presentation or date or something, and that was causing the lack of speakingitude. But maybe it was my repression of my gesticulation that was causing my problem with speaking? Huh. And as I typed this I noticed I stopped and made gestures when I was trying to figure out what to say. Huh. Never really noticed that before. Hmmm…maybe that’s why I suck at phone conversations? I tend to not make gestures since I know they’ll not be seen. And yet explaining something simple to a customer over the phone is always harder than explaining it in person. hmmm… think I need to experiment with this.

  4. Most of these kinds of discoveries are actually fairly basic applications of Hebb’s Law, “cells that fire together wire together”. The interesting bit that they’ve discovered is that yes, motor centers are connected to other kinds of learning centers.

    Almost anything you do using one part of your brain connects to anything else you do using another part of your brain, as long as you do them at the same time. The connection between them, however distant, is strengthened by the act of doing them both at the same time. Learning math and gesturing at the same time means that the gesture will reinforce the math and the math will reinforce the gesture. If they could play basketball or listen to opera at the same time, hoops and divas would also trigger their math knowledge, strengthening it further.

  5. I think the thing that will bring about a Singularity (if ever) will be us learning about learning and how to learn betterfasterstronger.

    I think we are just beginning to notice the acceleration.

  6. It could be that they are maintaining data structures “in space” that they are manipulating. I know that such “structures” can be inferred and manipulated as an external speech technique, there’s no reason to believe that some of us would use such things internally.

    Whether we are consciously aware of our use of such things is a completely other debatable question.

  7. Really cool to read this: I do the same thing when I teach. I’ve often noticed that my gestures correspond roughly to the concept I’m talking about: like, say I’m mentioning one author quoting another, I’ll do a little “back-and-forth” finger waggle that, for me, anyway, shows the influence between the two texts. I’ve always thought these gestures were somatic expressions of the “deep concept” I’m trying to explain linguistically. Neat!

  8. Heck yes Hebb’s rule! This is one reason

    Hebb’s rule may not be the neatest thing to take from this. Then, why do kids benefit from the particular gesture, instead of the countless other co-occurrences? One possible (and neat) answer is that maths – rather than being a process of abstract symbol manipulation – is grounded in our hardware for acting, doing and making things. That’s why gesturing in a particular way (like, pointing your hand at two numbers to “connect” them) seems to help in solving particular kinds of problems (like grouping things together).

  9. Here’s an idea. It’s well known that dopamine plays key roles in both movement and learning. Perhaps, the gestures somehow primes the brain’s learning mechanisms with dopamine.

  10. Students were coached to make the “v” gesture when solving a problem where the answer was 5. They were probably told to make an “X” while solving for 10.

    Did these kids know Roman numerals? They might, if they were Italian. But then, we’re back to the gestures-while-talking stereotype. Q.E.D. Or maybe not.

    This study sounds it’s lacking some scientific controls by people not named Mario (and not scoring magic mushrooms).

    Or maybe I’m just confused (since I didn’t bother to RTFA).

  11. I just finished Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson” (Johnson compiled the first English dictionary among other things), and it said that Johnson hated gesturing. It also said that Johnson gestured wildly when he spoke. So, there you go.

  12. This is quite cool thanks for sharing this David! I made a short movie two years back re: the relationship between doodling, gesture, and cognition. Im commenting because it seems to tie directly to this post and to the comments in this thread. I find these ideas fascinating.

    I don’t know if the link will make it through, but here it is…

    What is it about doodling that helps us think? When we doodle or gesture are we engaging the same motor-skill pathways in the brain that are implicated in the origin of language? What is the connection between playing with rosary beads, doodling, and other meditative motor skills tasks? What role, if any do mirror neurons play in all this?

    Cool books to check out in this area are:
    From Hand to Mouth- Michael Corballis
    and The Throwing Madonna- William Calvin


  13. There is actually an entire field of gesture studies, drawing from linguistics, psychology, cognitive science…It’s a fascinating area – other results include the fact that performance on certain tasks declines when gesturing is prevented, most people gesture when on the phone, and you can tell when a child is on the verge of “getting” conservation of volume by paying attention to his/her gestures. Personally, I’ve been researching gesture in mathematics (not arithmetic, but things like fractions and proof, at the conceptual level). No sound-bite results as of yet, but it is really interesting.

    If anyone wants to read the original seminal work on gesture, get “Hand and Mind” by David McNeill.

  14. Hmmm… I find it difficult to listen properly to what people are saying and simultaneously keep in mind an interesting response which I am eager to get across. (And judging by many of the conversations I’ve had in my time, I’m not the only one).
    Rather than interrupt, I have found that setting my fingers into position for the sign of the first letter of the concept I want to bring up lets me use my hands as external temporary storage so that I can pay proper attention to the rest of what my fellow interlocutor is saying without risk of forgetting my own point. (My sister is an AUSLAN translator and I’ve picked up a bit of sign-language thither).

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