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Investigations
Hand jive



Expressive talkers have an ally: Susan Goldin-Meadow, professor of psychology, believes grandma was wrong when she told you not to flap your hands when telling a story.

IMAGE:  Psychologist Susan Goldin-Meadow

"Talking with our hands may actually make thinking easier," says Goldin-Meadow, who recently studied such motions with Howard Nusbaum, associate professor and chair of psychology, Spencer Kelly, AM'98, PhD'99, and doctoral student Susan Wagner. The group reported their findings in the November Psychological Science.

The study's participants, 40 children and 36 adults, were asked to solve age-appropriate math problems. After solving each problem they were given several words (for children) or letters (for adults) to memorize. Next, the participants were asked how they arrived at their solutions to the math problems. During the explanations some were permitted to gesture, and the others were not. Finally, after completing their explanations, the subjects were asked to recall the list of items. Both adults and children remembered over 20 percent more words and letters if they had been allowed to gesture while explaining their math solutions.

"These findings suggest that gesture reduces the cognitive load of explanation," says Nusbaum, "freeing capacity that can be used on a memory task performed at the same time."

How can gesturing "free" up thinking resources? Perhaps, speculate the researchers, gesturing divides up the work of an explanation, allowing people to draw on visual, spatial, or motor capacities in addition to verbal capacity. "This might allow gestures to facilitate information processing and reduce effort," Nusbaum says.

The research garnered lots of media attention, including a limerick on NPR's November 17 game show Wait, Wait-Don't Tell Me!:

If your brain doesn't meet high demands
Here's some gestures to loosen your glands.
Put 'em up in the air,
Shake 'em like you don't care.
You'll be smarter if you use your hands.

-S.A.S.



  FEBRUARY 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 3


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