Scientific American writes about recent research into how gestures support cognitive processes. From the article:
The drive to gesture when speaking is fundamental to human nature.
If you have thought about why we gesture you probably assumed that we gesture to help others understand what we are saying. Pretending to hold a ceramic mug can help the barista understand exactly which mug you want. Showing how the fish darted to and fro can help your sister get a more vivid picture of what the reef looked like to you.
But might gesture also serve another purpose? Many scientists now think that gestures can help the person making them — that moving your hands can help you think. Researchers have become increasingly interested in the connection between the body and thought – in the ways that our physical body shapes abstract mental processes.
To understand the research, consider a math problem like 3+2 +8 =___+8. A student might make a “v” shape under the 2 and 3 with their pointer finger and middle finger, as they try to understand the concept of “grouping” – adding adjacent numbers together, a technique that can be used to solve the problem. Previous research has shown that students who are asked to gesture while talking about math problems are better at learning how to do them. This is true whether the students are told what gestures to make, or whether the gestures are spontaneous.
Now that we have a consumer device with a large multi-touch screen, it will be interesting to follow what effect the iPad, and future devices like it, may have peoples ability to learn new concepts using gestures. I’m looking forward to having the ability to teach my kids math concepts with objects manipulated and grouped on a screen as an alternative to the 2d approach we generally favor now.
With a wave of the hand. How using gestures can make you smarter.