Show Me What You're Thinking

Suggests that people gesture less for the benefit of others than to help themselves think. Findings of a study by psychologists Jana Iverson and Susan Goldin-Meadow to know if people gesture while talking because they learn by watching others.

By Jeff Howe, published on March 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


Try giving directions to a stranger without pointing, and you know that hands are as linked to speech as teeth and tongue. A new study suggests that we gesture less for the benefit of others than to help ourselves think.

Psychologists Jana Iverson, Ph.D., of Indiana University, and Susan Goldin-Meadow, Ph.D., of the University of Chicago, wanted to know if we gesture while talking because we learn by watching others. They videotaped 29 children responding to a series of reasoning tasks known to elicit hand signals. Surprisingly, the children all gestured in remarkably similar ways, despite the fact that 12 had been blind since birth. "The gestures looked just the same," says GoldinMeadow. "It really shows that gesture is not unique to the sighted."

Another common assumption is that we gesture to convey information to others. That idea was dismissed when four additional blind children were asked to run through the same tasks for a researcher they'd been told was also blind. Once again, the children made gestures-even though they knew the movements couldn't be seen.

This, the researchers say, suggests that people who talk with their hands think with them as well, an idea supported by the preliminary results of studies that she and Iverson are currently conducting. Both indicate that kids remember events more clearly when they are allowed to gesture while explaining what happened. Says Goldin-Meadow: "Gesturing may make thinking a little easier by easing the burden on verbal communication."

PHOTO (COLOR): Show Me What You're Thinking