BODY & MIND
Hand Gestures Could Make Kids Smarter
By Maia Szalavitz
Using hand gestures may be important for more than just making a point; they could help children to learn.
In research published in the journal Developmental Psychology, preschoolers and kindergartners who naturally gestured to indicate what they were trying to do showed more self control, an ability associated with cognitive maturity.
The scientists came to this conclusion after testing children for their ability to sort objects according to changing criteria. Even adults have difficulty switching from one set of instructions to another, since the brain automates some aspects of learning to optimize efficiency. Once something is learned, however, it’s a challenge to unlearn and inhibit the reflexive response. That’s why it helps to develop good habits early — whether it’s a golf swing or eating a healthy diet. It’s easier to learn something correctly the first time than it is to unlearn ineffective techniques and relearn better ones.
In the experiment, 41 kids aged 2 to 6 had to place cards in trays. In one round, the tots first had to sort pictures of blue rabbits or red boats by color and then were asked to sort them by the object’s shape, regardless of color. In another game, they had to distinguish pictures of large or small yellow bears either by size or by whether teddy was right side up or sideways.
MORE: Self-Disciplined People Are Happier (and Not as Deprived as You Think)
During the task, some of the children instinctively used gestures — making rabbit ears when they knew shape mattered, or moving their palms from facing up to turning sideways when they were sorting by the teddy bear’s orientation — to guide themselves.
“Our study shows that young children’s gesturing can help them think,” says the study’s lead author Patricia Miller, professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. What’s more, she found that this effect had a stronger effect on successful performance than age — a powerful finding given that children’s skills improve rapidly with age during this stage of development.
“It’s not just what’s going on inside the head that’s linked with how kids learn and perform, but how they express it with their body that matters, too.” says Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To, who was not associated with the study.
The toddlers’ gestures could be interpreted as a glimpse of their brains at work, as they figure out how to exert the cognitive control necessary to complete their tasks. But were the gestures simply a marker for a higher level of intelligence? To find out, Miller and her team asked the toddlers to explain what they were doing, an ability strongly tied to verbal skills. It turned out that the children’s ability to correctly verbalize their reasoning did not predict their success as well as gesturing did. Gestures also increased in the few tasks just after the criteria shifted, making them more difficult, which also supports the idea that gesturing itself was helpful.
The research is only the latest to explore how movement of the body is fundamental to the way in which the mind works. Earlier work showed that older children were better able to learn math if taught to use gestures while doing so. And they often found the right answer physically — for example, by making movements to signify the numbers that needed to be kept together to add correctly — before finding it verbally. Miller’s own research found improvements in math performance, which requires improved mental control, among overweight kids after they became more physically active.
That has implications for improving the way we communicate and think, and could help to address developmental disorders associated with cognitive control issues, such as autism. “In some ways, motor behavior might be ahead of our conscious verbal behavior,” says Miller, “It may be pulling development along.”
MORE: Control Yourself! Inhibiting Physical Action Cuts Risky Gambling and Drinking
If that’s true, using gestures to improve self-control could also help to manage addictive behaviors. One study found that simply teaching people to inhibit actions (in this case, refraining from pressing a computer key that they were previously trained to press) before seeing images related to gambling reduced the number of risky bets they placed. Another study found a 30% drop in drinking among Dutch students who hadn’t even been trying to cut down, after they performed a task in which they restrained themselves from pressing keys when seeing images of beer. These findings suggest that simply making gestures involved with refusing or controlling behavior could help to change it. (The same process may enhance behaviors as well; heavy marijuana users who pulled images of pot “closer” to them on a computer screen smoked more following the exercise.)
“There’s a close connection between mind and body,” Miller says. Abstract thought, in fact, typically requires grounding in concrete, physical metaphors.
“This research suggests that not only do our thoughts affect our bodies, but our bodies can affect how we decide, what we think and how we learn,” says Beilock. So when it comes to learning, children may need to use their hands as well as their brains.
Maia Szalavitz @maiasz
Maia Szalavitz is a neuroscience journalist for TIME.com and co-author of Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered.