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Showcase January 2013:Spatial actions with and without speech: Neither resemble gesture

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Spatial actions with and without speech: Neither resemble gesture

Caroline Trofatter, Carly Kontra, Sian Beilock, Susan Goldin-Meadow (Co-PI)

University of Chicago


For the archival version of this research, and the preferred citation, see:

  • Trofatter, C., Kontra, C., Beilock, S. L., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (2015). Gesturing has a larger impact on problem-solving than action, even when action is accompanied by words. Language, Cognition & Neuroscience, 30(3), 251-260. [DOI]

Figure 1By observing any speaker, we can see that gestures are actions in the sense that they are hand movements, but gesture and action are two different phenomena. Gesture itself does not directly affect the world, whereas most other actions have direct, concrete effects. While gestures are coordinated with speech, most actions are performed without relevant, co-occuring speech. So gesture is grounded in action, but it is representational and strongly tied to language, and thus might serve as a unique bridge between concrete physical relations and abstract spatial knowledge.

Research indicates that gesture not only reflects our mental representations of spatial information (Wagner Cook & Tanenhaus 2009), but that the act of gesturing is also involved in the construction of those representations (Church & Goldin-Meadow 1986; Singer & Goldin-Meadow 2005; Goldin-Meadow, Cook & Mitchell 2009; Ehrlich, Tran, Levine, & Goldin-Meadow, 2009; Goldin-Meadow & Beilock, 2010).

The current study investigates whether there is a difference in learning between subjects asked to coordinate gesture with spatial language to describe their solution to a puzzle, and those asked to coordinate concrete actions with spatial language to do so.

Sixty University of Chicago undergraduate students were asked to solve a spatial puzzle called the Tower of Hanoi. Subjects were instructed to move the disks from the start peg to the end peg while following two rules: move only one disk at a time, and never put a larger disk on top of a smaller disk.

Figure 2Figure 2

Each subject practiced and then solved the puzzle while pre-test measures of solution time and number of moves were recorded. Then each subject demonstrated her solution to a confederate using (1) concrete actions alone (Action), OR (2) concrete actions and spatial language (Action+Talk), OR (3) gesture and spatial language (Gesture).

Figure 3Figure 3

Finally, each subject solved the puzzle a final time at post-test using either (1) the original disks with correlated size and weight (No Switch) OR (2) a new set of disks for which size and weight are inverse (Switch).

Figure 4Figure 4

If gesture differs from action because it affords the coordination of task-relevant speech with task-relevant movements, then producing concrete actions together with speech about the puzzle should affect behavior in a manner similar to the way gesture affects behavior. If gesture differs from action because movements made about physical objects in their absence lead to differences in the mental representations of those objects, then the coordination of concrete actions with speech should simply resemble what happens when concrete actions are performed silently (since the objects are still physically present).

Figure 5Figure 5

Subjects in the Gesture-Switch condition who use gesture to describe their solutions and then solve the post-test using switched-weight disks perform significantly worse compared to the No-Switch-gesturers who use the regularly weighted apparatus at post-test. This is not the case for either of the Action groups – for both the Action and the Action+Talk groups, performance at post-test is significantly better than that at pre-test, regardless of whether the post-test is performed on regular or switched-weight disks.

Figure 6Figure 6

This phenomenon appears to depend on the representational content of the gestures. Within the Gesture-Switch group, the percentage of one-handed gestures produced about the small disk is significantly positively correlated with an increase in post-test solution time (a performance deficit).

This suggests that gesturing about an action creates strong mental representations of the particular components of that action, and that the form of the gesture plays a role in encoding those components and constructing those representations. The actual performance of the action itself does not seem to create a similarly strong mental representation of its components in this case, even when spatial language is coordinated with the actions. This study also provides evidence that if the components of action represented by gesture are incongruent with subsequent task-related actions, a learner will experience performance deficits. In practice, learners and teachers should be aware that incompatible gestures may impair performance in certain learning situations.

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