It’s no secret that we routinely use hand gestures and other forms of body language to communicate with one another. But it turns out that we don’t gesture just to convey information to others; we also gesture for ourselves. We gesture while we are on the phone, even when the person we are talking to can’t see us. Why?
It seems that gestures help us think, and more important, they help us think differently than we would if we spoke without moving. One interesting aspect of gesture is that the information conveyed with our hands is often not found anywhere in the speech that accompanies it. In this way, gesture reflects thoughts that speakers may not even know they have. In school settings, among students who have difficulty solving equations such as 4 + 5 + 3 = __ + 3, performance improves markedly if they are taught gestures that mimic the problem solution: grouping together the unique left-side numbers with a two-fingered “V” (that is, the 4 and the 5), and then pointing their index finger at the blank space on the right. Most striking, students are more likely to solve these types of equivalence problems if they are taught to gesture about them using the two-fingered “V” than if they are simply told to say, “I need to make one side equal to the other.” Enacting the solution with their hands helps students to get a better handle (no pun intended) on the problem.