Improve problem solving, use your hands

By Contributing Writer

by: Alexandra Kukulka, Contributing Writer

When children tell adults how they brush their teeth, it’s difficult for them to explain the task without gesturing.

The act of gesturing might seem like a common part of everyday conversation, but it’s been proven to help the brain’s train of thought when clarifying a situation

Based on a recent study published by Psychological Science, hand gestures help people communicate their thoughts when solving a problem or clarifying tasks.

According to the study, titled “Gesture Changes Thought by Grounding It in Action,” gesturing while explaining a task may help with problem solving and childrens’ mental development.

“We are trying to argue that gesture is really  changing the way [people] are thinking,” said Susan Goldin-Meadow, the study’s lead researcher and psychology professor at the University of Chicago. “We were interested in the relationship between gesture and action. We are trying to figure out whether [gestures] get some of the benefits as an action or whether [gestures are] something quite different from that.”

Volunteers were asked to solve the Tower of Hanoi, a puzzle comprised of three pegs. Pieces are moved from peg to peg in a specific weight order. Heavier pieces are placed on the bottom and cannot be stacked on top of lighter ones. The weight of the pieces is light, so participants were able to move the pieces with one hand.

It was conducted in two parts: In the first part, participants were asked to explain how they solved the puzzle and then complete it again. In the second part, they had to perform the task twice before explaining how they solved it.

Also in the first part of the study, participants were asked to explain how they solved the puzzle after the first time it was completed. They all used their hands when talking to researchers.

Goldin-Meadow said it was almost impossible for volunteers to explain the game to others without using one-handed gestures.

“What mattered was which gestures they produced, one-handed versus two- handed gestures,” Goldin-Meadow said.

According to the study, it took volunteers who use one-handed gestures 12.9 seconds longer to communicate to researchers how they completed the puzzle compared to people who used two-handed gestures.

Gesturing ties people’s thoughts to their actions, and the actions help communicate what words cannot express, said Sian Beilock, associate professor of psychology at the U of C.

During a second Tower of Hanoi game, the disks were secretly made heavier, making it harder to move the pieces in the specified weight order. This time, volunteers had to use two hands to move the disks.

The people who used one-handed gestures after the first game to explain how they solved it had trouble solving the puzzle with heavier pieces because the weight changed, which made the game harder and made their previous method to solve the puzzle incorrect.

Changing the weight of the pieces caused volunteers to gesture more to explain themselves, which is why the second part of the study was conducted—to prove gesturing is crucial when explaining how to solve a problem, Goldin-Meadow said.

In the second part of the study, volunteers were asked to play the game twice, the second time with the weight change, before talking to researchers.  They were  asked to described what they did after playing.

“If [explaining the task] really depends on gesturing then if we take [gesturing in between both games] away, the whole effect should go away,” Goldin-Meadow said. “So we took gesturing away, and the whole effect [of being able to explain a task effectively] went away.”

Goldin-Meadow and Beilock are working with children to help them understand abstract concepts in mathematics, physics and chemistry by using their hands.

“[Gesturing] helps communication, thinking and problem solving. [Hand motions] help solve simple math problems,” said David Uttal, professor of psychology at Northwestern University in the Psychology and Education Department.

Children use gestures to show they understand that there are two sides to a problem before they are able to explain it, Uttal said.

Based on the study, gesturing may help figure out how to work out a dilemma when it may not be noticed.

“It could be that gestures really have an effect on the way you think, no matter what you’re doing.” Goldin-Meadow said.