June 23, 2023 by Dan Falk
It’s no secret that humans use their hands, as well as their voices, to communicate. But while countless volumes have been written about the world’s spoken and written languages, gestures appear to have been given short shrift. And so Susan Goldin-Meadow’s new book, “Thinking with Your Hands: The Surprising Science Behind How Gestures Shape Our Thoughts,” comes as a welcome attempt to close the gap.
- This article originally appeared in Undark Magazine
For Goldin-Meadow, a psychologist at the University of Chicago who has been studying how we convey information with our hands for 50 years, gestures represent “an undercurrent of conversation” that happens in parallel to speech, even if their significance is “often unacknowledged.”
We gesture — with our bodies but especially with our hands — to communicate to those around us; to focus our thoughts; to remember. And these signals are everywhere. At the start of the book, Goldin-Meadow points to a scene in Season 4 of the TV series “The Crown,” where the young Diana Spencer (soon to be married to then-Prince Charles) is given instruction on what to do, and what not to do, with her hands. Her teacher says: “Gestures reveal us, whether we are anxious, or agitated, or cross. It’s best not to give that away.” (Though the author doesn’t mention it, fans of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” may recall Captain Picard responding to an annoying character named Q by putting his left hand over his face in what would become a ubiquitous internet meme — the Picard facepalm.)
It all begins in infancy, when observant parents will see their children communicating with their hands, often by pointing to an object — which they can do even before they’re able to speak — or, at a later age, as a means of making a request, like a twisting motion to ask that a parent open a jar. And the extent of that gesturing is an indicator of how quickly their vocabulary will later develop, Goldin-Meadow writes. You can even predict what words the child will learn: A child who points to birds while still nonverbal, for example, will likely start using the word “bird” within a few months. She also details how parents who respond to these gestures, and who encourage gesturing, can accelerate their child’s verbal development.
The research that led to these conclusions, much of it carried out either by Goldin-Meadow or her former students, suggests that gesturing could play a larger role in education by fostering teaching that’s better honed to the student’s needs. “Gesture reflects what’s on a learner’s mind and tells us how likely the learner is to change that mind,” she writes, and instructors who are aware of these cues can be “more targeted in their teaching.”
In addition, as with parenting, there is something to be gained when an instructor gestures in a manner that complements the lesson. Goldin-Meadow describes a study led by a former student, Martha Alibali, in which grade-school children play with blocks while a teacher gives instruction via video. The teacher says “Find the block that has an arrow pointing up and a smiley face with a rectangle above it.” For one group, the teacher gestured upward while saying the words “up” and “above”; in another, the teacher gave a conflicting gesture; and in a third, gave no gesture. “Children who saw the reinforcing gesture were more successful after the lesson” compared to the other two cases, the author notes.
Goldin-Meadow cites a number of similar studies, and notes that the results even apply to children whose first language is not the language of instruction.
As well, the degree to which a child gestures can signal potential developmental issues, including autism. A lack of gesturing, Goldin-Meadow notes, is part of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, which clinicians use to evaluate children with the condition. It’s also a very useful indicator, she explains, because the absence of pointing, along with the infrequent use of gesture, can be spotted before language delays become apparent. All too often, these early indicators go unnoticed, and the child isn’t diagnosed until they begin school.
Goldin-Meadow also explores, in detail, the gestures used by deaf children. Some of these children may eventually go on to learn a structured sign language such as American Sign Language, or ASL; but, long before, deaf children will start to “homesign” (the term for sign-based communication that a child develops without instruction).
These homesigns, it turns out, have many of the attributes of full-fledged, word-based languages. And the fact that they develop organically — just as spoken language develops organically in a household where both parent and child can speak — tells us just how fundamental this type of communication is. “If language disappeared, we humans would very likely reinvent it, and it would look (at deep levels) like the languages we speak now,” she muses. “The bottom line is that homesign tells us about the powerful connections between our hands and our thoughts.”
Though Goldin-Meadow is a psychologist, and her approach is rooted in careful observations of adults and children, the book also looks at what neuroscience reveals about our ability to communicate in the first place. Here she again cites the work of Alibali (and one of Alibali’s students, Autumn Hostetter), and a framework they developed called Gesture as Simulated Action. The key idea is that when we think about, or speak about, a particular action, the same brain regions are involved as when we actually perform the action. We use the same parts of our brains when we think about throwing, for example, as when we actually throw something.
Though this work may appear to lean toward the theoretical, it very much affects how we engage with the physical world. For example, as Goldin-Meadow explains, people who have lost an arm and have been fitted with a prosthetic will gesture using the prosthetic — but the degree to which they do so depends on how much they consider the new arm to be a part of themselves.
Since gestures are everywhere, it’s no surprise they make their way into the courtroom, where they may or may not get a fair hearing. Goldin-Meadow points out that legal interactions are “structured through talk” so they are “understood without reference to the nonverbal environment.” This means that although a witness’s words will be recorded by the court stenographer, their gestures will not be, and if a transcript of testimony is read to a jury, that element will be missing. Consider a hypothetical case where a child is trying to recall the appearance of a suspect. The child, not knowing the word mustache, touches their lip just below their nose — prompting the lawyer to ask, “Did he have a mustache?” But the child’s gesture won’t be recorded on the court transcript, and anyone who hears it read to them may conclude that the lawyer asked the child a leading question.
In spite of the close connection between gesture and language, it’s not always easy to describe gestures in words; to that end, the book features numerous black and white illustrations where needed. (Those listening to the audiobook might wish they were watching a video.)
Still, Goldin-Meadow’s thorough and insightful book makes it clear that gestures are all around us, and that there is much to be learned from them, if only we’re willing to give them the attention they deserve. “Our hands reveal our thoughts,” she writes, “to those who know where to look.”