Carolyn's Daily Posts: 2011

April 6, 2011

Hand Gestures: Necessary for Speaking?




     When I speak, my hands are in motion. I’m not the only one who speaks and moves their hands simultaneously. It’s almost like…if you tied my hands behind me, I couldn’t talk.

     I also have moments, moments when I cannot recall a word or phrase. I say moments rather than senior moments because nothing’s changed since my earlier recollection. I’ve always had these moments. Once, while a court witness, I told the judge I needed to check my notes in order to answer a question because I have specific name and memory deficit. The judge accepted my answer.


     Two men were walking down a street one cold winter’s day. One man babbled incessantly, while his companion, frigid hands stuffed in his pockets, merely nodded here and there. Finally the talker asked, “Shmuel, why aren’t you saying anything:” To which the friend replied, “I forgot my gloves.”*


     A Columbia University professor focused his research on the role of gestures in speech. At first, conventional scientific wisdom said that gestures are a visual language that conveys meaning: pointed fingers mean you; a hand sideways means over there. Other gestures seemed meaningless, but were in rhythm with the speaking. Perhaps gestures serve another function.

     Perhaps gestures help persons retrieve elusive words from their memory.

     A slew of papers that were recent and upcoming at the end of 1998 pinpointed how talking with your hands can unlock…”lexical memory.”

     They tested the theory that if gesticulationg is like wielding a key to the door of lexical memory, then someone who can’t use his hands should have more trouble unlocking the door.

     They found that test subjects more often failed to think of a word, or took longer to do it, than when they could gesture freely. Other studies found that there is more muscle activation when you try to access a word like ‘castanets,’ which has a connotation of movement, than when you try to access an abstract word like ‘mercy’…speakers gesture more when they try to define words that have a strong spatial component—like “under” or “adjacent”—than when defining words that are more abstract, like “thought” or “evil.”


     Not everyone gestures equally. Some do so up to forty times more than others. A New York study found that Italian and Jewish immigrants gestured a lot. While Jews tend to keep their gestures small, Italians were more expansive.


    Could it be that that the language of the gestures is more rhythmic? Or…could people who gesture think differently than those who don’t gesture? For example, frequent gesturers may conceptualize things in spatial terms…e.g. rather than thinking of ‘freedom’ as not only political but in more spatial terms, such as ‘without boundaries’. The more an abstract word has physical counterparts, the more helpful gesturing will be.


     The next time you see me gesturing don’t think that it is my way of entertaining you. Think of it as my effort to recall a word or to converse constructively.



*Living Hand to Mouth, Sharon Begley, Newsweek, November 2, 1998, pp 69




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