Gestures are important to communication, learning, feeling and thinking – an aspect of embodiment.
Ellen Campana reports in the Scientific American site (here) on research by Goldin-Meadow, Mitchell and Wagner-Cook.
Historically, the field has viewed concepts, the basic elements of thought, as abstract representations that do not rely on the physicality of the body. This notion, called Cartesian Dualism, is now being challenged by another school of thought, called Embodied Cognition. Embodied Cognition views concepts as bodily representations with bases in perception, action and emotion. There is much evidence supporting the Embodied Cognition view. However, until now there has never been a detailed, experimentally supported account of how embodiment through gesture plays a role in learning new concepts.
Laura Sanders also reports on this research in Science News (here)
Children whose parents speak to them more are known to have higher vocabularies. But gesturing also affects vocabulary, even when all speech effects are removed from the analysis, the researchers say. Gesturing effects go above and beyond speech effects, says Goldin-Meadow…A child’s gestures may spark more “teachable moments,” creating opportunities for verbal reinforcement of ideas. “The child points at a dog and the parent says, ‘Yes, that’s a dog,’” …Research also suggests that gesturing may encourage children to think more creatively by bringing out new ideas and improving clarity. By manipulating how much children gestured, researchers gauged the influence of gesturing. Older children told to gesture while solving math problems on a chalkboard got the answer right more frequently than children who were told not to gesture. “These gestures are not mere hand waving. Kids are extracting meaning from gestures,” says Goldin-Meadow.
ScienceDaily reports on work by A. Lleras (here)
Swinging their arms helped participants in a new study solve a problem whose solution involved swinging strings, researchers report, demonstrating that the brain can use bodily cues to help understand and solve complex problems…”In other words, by directing the way people move their bodies, we are – unbeknownst to them – directing the way they think about the problem.”…Even after successfully solving the problem, almost none of the study subjects became consciously aware of any connection between the physical activity they engaged in and the solution they found…”The results are interesting both because body motion can affect higher order thought, the complex thinking needed to solve complicated problems, and because this effect occurs even when someone else is directing the movements of the person trying to solve the problem,” Lleras said…The new findings offer new insight into what researchers call ‘embodied cognition,’ which describes the link between body and mind…
People tend to think that their mind lives in their brain, dealing in conceptual abstractions, very much disconnected from the body,” he said. “This emerging research is fascinating because it is demonstrating how your body is a part of your mind in a powerful way. The way you think is affected by your body and, in fact, we can use our bodies to help us think.”