Gesturing to improve memory, language & thought

I recently reported on a study showing how the gestures people made in describing how they solved a problem (the Tower of Hanoi) changed the way they remembered the game. These findings add to other research demonstrating that gestures make thought concrete and can help us understand and remember abstract concepts better.

For example, two experiments of children in late third and early fourth grade, who made mistakes in solving math problems, have found that children told to move their hands when explaining how they’d solve a problem were four times as likely to manually express correct new ways to solve problems as children given no instructions. Even though they didn’t give the right answer, their gestures revealed an implicit knowledge of mathematical ideas, and the second experiment showed that gesturing set them up to benefit from subsequent instruction.

And in a demonstration of improved memory, an earlier study had participants watch someone narrating three cartoons. Sometimes the narrator used hand gestures and at other times they did not. The participants were then asked to recall the story. The study found that when the narrator used gestures as well as speech the participants were more likely to accurately remember what actually happened in the story rather than change it in some way.

In another study, in which 40 children and 36 adults were asked to remember a list of letters (adults) or words (children) while explaining how they solved a math problem, both groups remembered significantly more items when they gestured during their math explanations than when they did not gesture.

It’s thought that gesturing helps memory and understanding by lightening the load on working memory while you’re thinking of what to say. Gestures use up visuospatial working memory rather than verbal memory, so essentially what you’re doing is moving part of the information in one limited working memory space into another working memory space (and brain region).

Gesturing begins at an early age, first with pointing and then with more complex gestures. It is interesting to note that several advances in cognitive abilities are displayed first in gesture before later being expressed in speech. Moreover, the early use of gesture is associated with later verbal skill.

For example, research from Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues has found that toddlers (14 months), studied during an hour and a half of play with their parents, used gestures more if they were from better-educated families, and this correlated with significantly greater vocabulary at 4 ½. On average, toddlers from well-educated families used gestures to convey 24 different meanings, while those from less-educated families used gestures to convey only 13. Better-educated parents also used more gestures when interacting with their children.

Another interesting study by the same researchers showed that the number of different meanings conveyed in gesture at 18 months predicted vocabulary at 42 months, while the number of gesture+speech combinations, particularly those conveying sentence-like ideas, predicted sentence complexity.

Some months ago, I read an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer about parents communicating with their pre-verbal infants using sign language. I was greatly taken with this idea. Though it sounds, at first blush, to be part of the whole flashcards-for-babies movement, it is something quite different (I do think you need to be very judicious in the ‘hothousing’ of children; there’s more to making a person than stuffing them with knowledge like a foie gras goose). The development of verbal skills requires physical development and control that is beyond babies, but we shouldn’t assume their inability to articulate words means they don’t have the mental capacity for thought.

Nor is there any evidence that teaching them simple signs delays or impedes their verbal development. Indeed, it may help it. It may also help their social development. There’s a lot of frustration in not being able to communicate — surely eliminating, or at least reducing, that frustration is going to have positive effects.

Now this is speculation. At this point we only have anecdotal reports, no research. But we can point to the positive effects of bilingualism to tell us learning two languages is beneficial rather than a hindrance (although children growing up in a truly bilingual household may be a few weeks later in starting to speak), and we know that children’s language skills improve the more time parents spend (positively) interacting with them, and, as we have just discussed, early skill with gestures is associated with better verbal skills later on.

Caregivers of young children who are interested in this can go to: http://www.babysignlanguage.com/

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