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Gestures Are Handy for Speaking and Thinking

Why you talk with your hands, even when you're on the phone.

By
Lauren Gawne, read by Mignon Fogarty,
June 29, 2017
Episode #575

Page 1 of 3

why do people talk with their hands

Do you talk with your hands? Speaking and gesturing go together so unconsciously we often don’t bother to pay attention to what we are doing with our hands while we speak. We think of gesture as communicating, but if that is true, why do we gesture when we are on the telephone? Even blind people who have never seen another person gesture will gesture. There is something more going on here, even if we are not often aware of it.

So, what drives our need to gesture?

And how does the language we speak relate to the way we gesture?

The most obvious function of gestures is for communicating. For example, you might use your hands to point out which cake you want to buy, or demonstrate how big the polka dots are on your new umbrella. But we also use gestures even when no one is watching, such as when we're on the phone, so communication can't be the only thing they're good for. 

Gesturing Helps with Memory

Sure enough, research has demonstrated that gestures help us think. Sotaro Kita, Martha Alibali and Mingyuan Chu have a recent paper that draws together two decades of research on gesturing. For example, one study found that when you prevent people from gesturing, they find it harder to think of the words they want to say. 

Gesturing doesn’t just help with speaking either, it can help with thinking. Several studies asked people to silently solve puzzles that involved rotating complex shapes—the people who were encouraged to gesture about it got the right answer more often than the people who gestured only the normal amount. Similarly, in a task where people had to remember directions from a map, the group who practiced the route by gesturing their way through it remembered it better than people who only looked at the map or drew a copy.

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