What’s in a gesture?

Cultures differ in how much people instinctively gesture, but gesturing is a key part of how humans communicate with each other. They are also, according to studies by Susan Goldin-Meadow, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, key to how we learn.

It turns out that the movement associated gestures reinforce learning. Children taught with gestures remember more of a lesson than those taught without. When we talk about an action, our brain simulates it. If there is strong enough simulation, we add gestures. The effect is stronger for actions we have made than for actions we have seen others do. Gestures can also overcome word-block – when the right word doesn’t immediately come to mind, gesturing triggers associations that reconnect the mental pathways. Strangely, some experiments have found that, rather than add to cognitive load, gestures while speaking actually lighten it.

There are implications here for coaching and for Artificial Intelligence.

Some schools of thought in coaching preach that the coach should put as little as they can of themselves into the conversation. The studies of gesturing suggest to the contrary that we may stimulate their thinking better by allowing instinctive movements greater freedom. A half-way house here might be to replace words with gestures some of the time.

I sometimes have coaches bring to supervision “uptight” clients – people, who communicate only minimally. Drawing is one way these clients can be helped to be more expressive, but encouraging them to gesture more may also work to release inhibitions.

The problem for AI is that it’s a lot more difficult to emulate appropriate gestures than to replicate sentence structure or tone. The former are generated by internal, instinctive and constantly adapted algorithms that can’t be observed and analysed. As we become much more attuned to using avatars, it may be possible to decode this parallel form of human communication. For now, however, if you want to differentiate between a robot and a human, consider what extra information are their gestures communicating?

© David Clutterbuck 2023




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