Choke

What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to

Hand Gestures Help Us Think Differently

What you do with your hands can change your mind

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.

How does gesture change our mind? One idea is that gestures are really just an outgrowth of how we might mentally simulate performing activities. Gestures give life to our mental scratch pads, allowing us to perform actions with our hands before we have to do them in real life or before we have thought these activities all the way through to put them into words. Encouraging students to use the “V” to understand how one side of an equivalence problem is equal to the other leads to learning because what comes out in gesture adds new information to our repertoire of thoughts — information that is often more easily expressed and remembered when it is conveyed with our hands. It’s also information we may not yet know we have in mind.

Knowing how important our hand movements can be for learning, it makes you think twice about all that time students spend in school confined to their chairs, encouraged to sit still and concentrate. Now that summer is upon us and kids have more time and opportunities to get up and out of their chairs, it seems like the perfect time to ask the question…  If the hands are a powerful learning tool, how else might the rest of the body be used to enhance learning?

For more on learning and performing at your best, check out my book Choke.

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Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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