Keeping Brain Power in Hand

Gesture, and your mind will thank you

FRIDAY, Dec. 7, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Talk with your hands and take the strain off your brain. That's the message of a new study that suggests gesturing during conversation gives the mind more space to devote to other tasks, like memory.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have found that children and adults do a better job of remembering things while talking when they are allowed to gesture during conversation.

Gesturing still is a largely mysterious phenomenon, but the findings show that people should ignore experts who tell them to keep their hands silent in public, says study author Susan Goldin-Meadow, a psychology professor. "That's foolish advice. Gesturing is part of our whole communicative process … and certainly not just for the listener."

Gestures are a part of human experience across cultures, ages and genders. Even babies and people who are blind from birth talk with their hands, Goldin-Meadow says.

"We don't always know we're gesturing. We just do it. If someone asked, 'What'd you just make that gesture for,' I might say, 'Huh?' We're not aware of what we do with our hands," she says.

Some people gesture more than others. Avoiding the practice, however, may be impossible, she says. "You can probably train yourself to sit on your hands, but at some point, everybody will gesture."

The researchers looked at groups of 36 adults and 40 children. The adults were told to memorize a group of words and then explain a series of factoring equations, along the lines of X-squared plus 5X plus 6. "It takes some effort to explain it," Goldin-Meadow says.

The children memorized letters and then were asked to explain simple math problems. Some subjects were allowed to gesture, and others were not.

Those who gestured remembered 20 percent more words or letters than those forbidden from gesturing.

The findings are reported in the November issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Why does gesturing seem to make the brain work better? "The argument is that gesturing saves cognitive effort. It lightens the burden of explaining," Goldin-Meadow says. As a result, areas of the brain may be freed for other activities.

The study "adds more to our understanding of the relationship between gesturing and thinking," says Jana Iverson, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who studies gesturing.

Gesturing "is not just window dressing. It's actually doing something for speakers as they're trying to communicate their thoughts," says Iverson.

One might argue that the non-gesturing subjects lost brain power because they focused on keeping their hands still. But the study found that subjects who were allowed to gesture but chose not to showed the same memory deficiencies as those not allowed to gesture at all, Iverson says.

Those findings are a "nice argument" for saying that deliberately not gesturing, no matter what the reason, is hard on the brain, she says.

What To Do

Learn how other cultures communicate with their hands in this primer by gesture expert Roger Axtell.

You can learn even more about "gestures, signs and body language cues" in this non-verbal dictionary.

SOURCES: Interviews with Susan Goldin-Meadow, Ph.D., professor of psychology and human development, University of Chicago; Jana Iverson, Ph.D., professor of psychological sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia; November 2001 Psychological Science
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