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Our Hands May Say More Than We Know

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 10, 2014

Forget Descartes' mind-body duality. A more recent perspective known as embodied cognition is based on growing recognition that thinking isn't confined to our brain cells. Our understanding of the world is profoundly influenced by our bodies and our experiences in physical reality. Research shows even the way we use our hands offers clues to how we think, what we know, and when we're ready to learn.

Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studied hand gestures used by adults and children and discovered that when gestures accompany language, they can provide visual and intuitive evidence of important meanings not explicitly put into words. She reports an experiment in which young children were asked whether two identical rows of checkers had the same number of pieces. The experimenter then spread out the second row and asked again whether the number was the same. One child said the number was different because the checkers were moved, and made a spreading gesture with her hands. The answer is wrong but the gesture matched the speech. Another child gave the same answer, but pointed at the first checker in each row, and continued moving his finger between the rows. In that case, the child's gesture conveyed different information from what he said, so speech and gesture were mismatched.

Interestingly, kids who mismatched benefited more from instruction, and learned faster than kids who matched. Further, when experimenters taught a strategy for solving a math problem correctly, with matching and mismatching gestures, kids taught with the mismatching gestures were more successful. Why? Goldin-Meadow wrote in Current Directions in Psychological Science that a conversation in gesture seemed to be taking place along side a conversation in speech, perhaps adding information, perhaps lightening the cognitive load, and perhaps aiding memory. Gestures let speakers convey thoughts they may not have words for, and mismatches may signal readiness to change a thought or learn new information.

Researchers from Michigan State showed 184 elementary school children a video about mathematical equivalence (an equation: 7+2+9=7+__________.) Half of the kids saw the teacher sweep her left hand beneath the left side of the equation as she spoke about that side, and her right hand under the right side when she spoke of the "other" side. The rest of the kids just heard her talk. When the children were given a different problem based on the same principle, those who saw the hand gestures were more successful.

Annie Murphy Paul, in the Business Insider Brilliant Blog, notes that the act of gesturing "seems to accelerate learning, bring nascent knowledge into consciousness" and aid understanding of new concepts. She cites Goldin-Meadow's work and a 2007 study by Susan Wagner Cook of the University of Iowa, in which third graders who gestured as they learned algebra were three times more likely to remember what they learned than classmates who did not gesture. In another study, Cook found that college students who gestured as they retold short stories remembered the story details better.

Embodied cognition is a relatively young concept. A Scientific American story by Samuel McNemey explains its roots in early twentieth century philosophy and its later development by George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  education  research 

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