How To Think With Your Hands

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Over the past few years, while working on my forthcoming book Brilliant, I’ve been watching and taking note as a new conceptualization of intelligence takes shape in the social and biological sciences. This conceptualization involves many lines of inquiry that can be loosely grouped under the title situated cognition: the idea that thinking doesn’t happen in some abstract, disembodied space, but always in a particular brain, in a particular body, located in a particular social and physical world. The moment-by-moment conditions that prevail in that brain, that body, and that world powerfully affect how well we think and perform.

One of the most interesting lines of inquiry within this perspective is known as embodied cognition: the recognition that our bodies play a big role in how we think. Physical gestures, for example, constitute a kind of back-channel way of expressing and even working out our thoughts. Research demonstrates that the movements we make with our hands when we talk constitute a kind of second language, adding information that’s absent from our words. It’s learning’s secret code: Gesture reveals what we know. It reveals what we don’t know. And it reveals (as Donald Rumsfeld might put it) what we know, but don’t yet know we know. What’s more, the congruence—or lack of congruence—between what our voices say and how our hands move offers a clue to our readiness to learn.

Many of the studies establishing the importance of gesture to learning have been conducted by Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. “We change our minds by moving our hands,” writes Goldin-Meadow in a review of this work published in a recent issue of the journal Cognitive Science. Particularly significant are what she calls “mismatches” between verbal expression and physical gestures. A student might say that a heavier ball falls faster than a light one, for example, but make a gesture indicating that they fall at the same rate, which is correct. Such discrepancies indicate that we’re in a transitional state, moving from one level of understanding to another.

The thoughts expressed by hand motions are often our newest and most advanced ideas about the problem we’re working on; we can’t yet assimilate these notions into language, but we can capture them in movement. When a child employs gesture, Goldin-Meadow notes, “the information about the child’s cognitive state is conveyed sub rosa—below the surface of ordinary conversation.” Such gesture-speech mismatches have been found in toddlers going through a vocabulary spurt, in elementary-school children describing why the seasons change, and in adults attempting to explain how a machine works.

Goldin-Meadow’s more recent work shows not only that gesture is an index to our readiness to learn, but that it actually helps to bring learning about. It does so in two ways. First, it elicits helpful behavior from others around us. Goldin-Meadow has found that adults spontaneously respond to children’s speech-gesture mismatches by adjusting their mode of instruction. Parents and teachers apparently receive the signal that children are ready to learn, and they act on it by offering a greater variety of problem-solving strategies.

The act of gesturing itself also seems to accelerate learning, bringing nascent knowledge into consciousness and aiding the understanding of new concepts. A 2007 study by Susan Wagner Cook, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, reported that third-graders who were asked to gesture while learning algebra were nearly three times more likely to remember what they’d learned than classmates who did not gesture. Another experiment conducted by Cook determined that college students who gestured as they retold short stories they’d seen recalled the details of the stories better, suggesting that gesturing as we’re remembering helps retrieve the information from memory.

So how can you crack learning’s secret code? First, pay attention to your own gestures. Research has found that watching a teacher gesture encourages young learners to produce gestures of their own. Learning improves even when children are given a specific gesture by someone else, rather than generating it themselves. In a 2009 experiment, Goldin-Meadow demonstrated that fourth-graders learning how to solve a math equation identified the correct answers more often when they imitated a helpful gesture shown to them by an adult than when they simply repeated the grown-up’s words.

Second, train yourself to attend to others’ gestures. Notice in particular the gestures that diverge from speech—when people say one thing and motion another, they are primed to take advantage of instruction and direction from others. And encourage your kids to move their hands when they talk. Studies show that children instructed to gesture make more speech-gesture mismatches—that is, they increase their readiness to learn.

By broadening our notion of how and where thinking takes place, we can effectively add to our repertoire another way to be smart.

(Want to read past issues of The Brilliant Report? You’ll find them here.)

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7 Responses to “How To Think With Your Hands”

  1. Cathy Reilly says:

    Studies also show that 90 percent of our meaning is conveyed nonverbally. I teach my public speaking class that gestures are extremely important when giving a presentation, since gestures can help the audience follow and remember the points we are trying to make. So much of our meaning is lost or confused when communication takes place electronically.

  2. Endre Balogh says:

    Dear Annie,

    I truly enjoyed reading your article.You just made me understand that I’ve been doing in the last 6 years. :-)
    I incorporated hand signs into instrumental music reading to decode music notation. Since I use hand signs, students focus attention has increased and their learning have accelerated.
    Here is a link to an example: http://youtu.be/DLGPUiZ5SFQ
    Thank you again for your great article!

  3. Robin Heyden says:

    Terrific post, Annie. Really enjoyed reading this and thinking about the way our gestures aid (and reveal) insight to learning. Your post reminds me how much I enjoyed reading Barbara Tversky’s work on gestures [http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~bt/gesture/papers/], and the insight that gestures can be thought of as a diagram to offload working memory. Really enjoying your blog.

  4. Stephanie P says:

    Interesting. These findings could help explain the success of baby sign language and the tremendous language learning advantage it offers. We used baby signs with all 3 of our kids starting around 6 months and you didn’t have to be a scientist to see how much it accelerated their learning curve and helped them master new word concepts before they could verbally articulate them. Little did we realize that by literally teaching them to speak with their hands, we were also encouraging this gesture-driven type of learning. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Anthony says:

    Good post. This made me think of playing poker. I wonder what good poker players could teach us about human gesturing and learning…

  6. If you forget door access codes or you bank pin code, just holding your hand and doing the motion at the right height and incline is enough to generate the code. I am left-handed and my right hand does not hold the same information in the same order. I have to change hands to access the information.
    I teach smart thinking and whole body kinaesthetic thinking on my Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) courses for adults at City Lit London. Asking people to move through an exercise, as opposed to thinking it through yields greater insighter into how successful a potential undertaking might be. Parts of our body, hold additional information.

  7. Michael LeFew says:

    I’d like to further investigate the theories and data on the thoughts and ideas we have, but can’t verbalize. I recently read Chin and Schooler’s 2008 article on verbal overshadowing- http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09541440701728623#.Ucu0j_k3t5U – in which judgements are impaired when verbalizing the decision process due to discrepancy between decision making ability and verbal ability. Verbal overshadowing was found to subside, i.e. judgement with verbalization improved, with increased ability to verbally analyze the decision making process, much as processes are better learned when accompanied by gestures. I wonder if Americans are, on average, more intuitive gestural communicators than verbal communicators, and gesturing aids the learning process because there’s less discrepancy between gestural communicative ability and ability to carry out processes like math than between those same processes and verbal ability. It would be interesting to set up a study measuring ability to learn a complex process against gestural and verbal ability, with various conditions involving gesture and vocalization.

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