In an earlier post, “Snakes and Language,” we looked at the role of pointing in the evolution of human language. But even with the emergence of the spoken word, the language of gesture remains fully in force, and in some ways is even more powerful a channel of communication than the words we use.
The hand gestures we use when talking are not random; they reflect our deepest thoughts. As providers of telephone interpreting services, we know that the missing visual cues in a telephone conversation are a serious handicap to communication and increase translation error significantly. When we set up conference equipment for simultaneous onsite events, our interpreting booths and technical equipment sometimes have to be set up in places where the interpreters can’t see the speakers, so to capture and interpret the speakers’ gestures, we’ll rig up video links for our interpreters. It makes a big difference in the quality of the event.
But it’s not just listeners who benefit. Even congenitally blind people move their hands when talking, which suggests that gesture helps to frame our thoughts.
Non-verbal communication has long been considered a window into people’s moods and attitudes. But researcher Susan Goldin-Meadow was able to link hand motion to the study of embodied cognition―”the ways that knowledge and awareness are grounded in physical sensations and actions.”
Goldin-Meadow believes that gestures reflect not only what people know, but how they are learning. By carefully observing the differences between what people are saying and how they are gesturing, she found that when gestures were out of whack with spoken expression, gesturers were often on the edge of a conceptual breakthrough. “A person’s gestures may represent an alternative way of tackling a problem.”
“The act of gesturing not only reflects what people know, but can, if deliberately encouraged, change the way they think―often for the better.” In classroom experiments she found that children who were encouraged to move their hands during a mathematics lesson were a lot more likely to learn than those who did not.
She thinks that gesturing aids thinking and learning by shouldering some of the cognitive burden, spreading out learning task beyond speech areas of the brain, or storing bits of information off the neural net, just as we write and take notes to aid memory.
But gesture can mislead too. Magicians don’t use sleight of hand for nothing. The fact that so much of gesture is done without awareness means that conscious manipulation of gesture can be used to deceive listeners or onlookers. A sharp cross-examiner in court might ask a witness, “What else was he wearing?” and point to an imaginary hat to get to the answer they wanted.