Culture Magazine

We Think with Gestures and Things

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
In Dark Matter of the Mind Dan Everett devotes a chapter to gesture and its relation to speech. Writing in The Conversation, Gaëlle Vallée-Tourangeau and Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau argue that gestures are important in thinking:
...that people’s thoughts, choices and insights can be transformed by physical interaction with things. In other words, thinking with your brain alone – like a computer does – is not equivalent to thinking with your brain, your eyes, and your hands – as humans frequently do.
The mind in the world
In the course of problem solving, we naturally tend to recruit artefacts and manipulate them to augment and transform our ability to think and to explain ourselves. Consider a game of Scrabble: players naturally touch, move and re-arrange the tiles they receive. If thinking were simply done “in the head”, what’s the purpose of these moves?
In fact, these moves are integral to the process of generating words. As players reconfigure the physical properties of their environment, they are not simply making it easier for them to think; they are thinking. Moves can be deliberate or serendipitous. This suggests that thinking is fundamentally relational: it unfolds along a series of physical changes in the environment that at times affects, and at times is affected by, a series of biological changes in the brain.
And so it goes with creativity and insight:
While posing a problem presented using a classic pencil and paper format never led to a breakthrough, those who could use physical artefacts to build a model of the problem were much more likely to reach some insight, no matter the difference between the partipants’ cognitive abilities.
We also applied this approach to the study of complex statistical reasoning. Previous research had found that, depending on the ease of mentally representing the statistical information presented, between 11% and 40% of people succeeded in solving these reasoning problems using just pen and paper.
We presented the same information on a pack of cards which reasoners were free to spread out and rearrange in any way they like. Not all participants fully engaged with the cards – perhaps unwilling to be judged as poor thinkers for doing so. Yet the success rate for those who made the most of this opportunity to use the material world to boost their thinking leapt to a 75% success rate.
I would add, anecdotally, that I find that pacing helps me to think. And, as I've argued, drawing diagrams as well.

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