The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Gesturing Engages All Four Brain Hemispheres

Younger children who use hand gestures outperform their peers.

We have four brain hemispheres — a left and right cerebral hemisphere and a left and right cerebellar hemisphere. I call these the left and right “Up Brain and Down Brain.” In this split-brain model the cerebrum is the 'up brain' and the cerebellum is the 'down brain.'

When I read the abstract of a study titled "A Show of Hands: Relations between Young Children's Gesturing and Executive Function" released on July 26, 2013, it seemed probable to me that ‘cerebellar’ (of or pertaining to the cerebellum) engagement was linked to improving the problem-solving ability and executive function of younger children. The new study is due to be published in the August, 2013 issue of Developmental Psychology. In the study, San Francisco State researchers found that younger children who use gestures outperformed their peers across the board. 

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Although the researchers don’t mention the cerebellum specifically in their new study, I have a hunch that it's important to put the cerebellum in the spotlight here. When it comes to hand gesturing, I believe that the engagement of all four hemispheres through gesticulation enhances our cognitive, creative, linguistic, and problem-solving abilities.

Left Brain-Right Brain | Up Brain-Down Brain

The left hemisphere of the cerebrum controls movements of the right side of your body while the right hemisphere of the cerebellum controls the right side of your body, and vice versa. Also, the left cerebral hemisphere (left brain) is typically considered to be the seat of logic and language while the “right brain” is considered by many to be the seat of images and abstract thoughts. Through gesturing you create a ‘Super 8’ loop that engages and synchronizes all four brain hemispheres making your mind like a souped-up V12 engine.

The Athlete’s Way is founded on the principle that each of us must regularly engage all four hemispheres of our brains in order to maximize our individual human potential in life and sport.

The mysterious and powerful cerebellum is only 10% of brain volume but holds over 50% of your brain’s neurons. The cerebellum has historically been underestimated by neuroscientists. My father—who was a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist—always said, ‘Whatever the cerebellum is doing, it’s doing a lot of it.” Typically the cerebellum was not believed to play much of a role in cognition or executive function, however, this belief is changing. For more on this, please check out my Psychology Today blog, “Primitive Brain Area Linked to Human Intelligence.”

Earlier this month, I wrote a Psychology Today blog titled “The Neuroscience of Speaking With Your Hands” based on a recent study from the Center for Language and Brain at Colgate University. Evidence is mounting that gesturing plays a significant role in ones ability to solve a problem and achieve a goal. Researchers believe that these processes include keeping the brain flexible and holding information in our working memory while helping the brain choose a course of action more quickly.

Gesturing Improves Executive Function of the Cerebrum

Patricia Miller and first author SF State graduate student Gina O'Neill found that young children who gesture are more likely to make the mental switch and group shapes accurately. The task itself is relatively simple – sorting cards printed with colored shapes first by color, and then by shape. But the switch from color to shape can be tricky for children younger than 5 years old, according to researchers.

O'Neill and Miller observed the children's spontaneous gestures as they performed the tasks, as well as gestures they were encouraged to make to explain their sorting choices. Both kinds of gestures were counted in comparing high and low gesturing children.

In the new study, children who did a lot of gesturing were better at the sorting task than those who gestured less. Interestingly, even when the heavy gesticulators weren’t using their hands to problem solve they still had higher marks. This makes it difficult to determine whether it's the gesturing itself that helps the children perform the task, or whether children who use a lot of gestures are simply at a more advanced cognitive level than their peers. This is a question that Miller and O'Neill plan to explore in future studies.

My hypothesis is that gesturing strengthens the ability of all four hemispheres of your brain to synchronize, harmonize and work together in concert. The more you flex each hemisphere through daily practice and behavior the stronger all parts of your brain become.

Gesturing trumped age when it came to the sorting performance of the children, who ranged from 2 and a half years old to 5 years old. In the color versus shape task, as well as one that asked children to sort pictures based on size and spatial orientation, younger children who gestured often were more accurate in their choices than older children who gestured less.

The children's gestures included rotating their hands to show the orientation of a card or using their hands to illustrate the image on the card. For example, children would gesture the shape of rabbits' ears when depicting a card that had a rabbit.

Miller said, "Gina and I were surprised by the strength of the effect. Still, the findings are consistent with a growing body of research showing that mind and body work closely together in early cognitive development.” She adds, "The findings are a reminder of how strong individual differences are among children of a particular age. Certain 3-year-olds look like typical 4-year-olds. This likely reflects an interaction of natural talent and particular experiences – both nature and nurture, as usual."

Studies have shown that gesturing can help older children learn new math concepts. "Really, though, there is evidence that gesturing helps with difficult cognitive tasks at any age," Miller said. "Even we adults sometimes gesture when we're trying to organize our tax receipts or our closets. When our minds are overflowing we let our hands take on some of the cognitive load."

Conclusion: The Cerebellum, Cognition, and Creative Thinking

As a triathlete, I am amazed with the changes that take place in my creative thought processes when I am engaged in rhythmic motions of running, biking or swimming. Something universal happens to our cognition when we engage all four hemispheres of our brains and minds through movement whether it’s aerobic exercise or gesticulation.

When I research the daily routines of creative greats, it becomes obvious that physical activity is a key part of the daily creative process for most. More often than not, the “Eureka! I’ve found it” moments tend to happen when we 'unclamp' the cerebrum and are engaged in a cerebellar, physical activity. Albert Einstein said famously of E=mc2, “I thought of that while riding my bicycle.” This is the ultimate example of the power of cerebellar engagement to improve executive function and creativity.

When you ‘speak with your hands’ you are engaging both hemispheres of your cerebellum, which synchronize with both hemispheres of the cerebrum and allows you to maximize the creative and logical powers of your left and right brain. To create a “Superfluid” state of thought and performance it’s important to combine cerebral (words) with cerebellar (gestures).

Patricia Miller concludes that there is "quite a bit of evidence now that gestures can help children think," perhaps by helping the brain keep track of relevant information or by helping the brain reflect on the possibilities contained within a task. She adds, "In my opinion, children shouldn't be discouraged from gesturing when they want to gesture during learning. Adults sometimes – appropriately – say to children, 'use your words,' but some children may think this applies to all situations."

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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