How your hands affect your thinking

October, 2011

Two recent studies in embodied cognition show that hand movements and hand position are associated with less abstract thinking.

I always like studies about embodied cognition — that is, about how what we do physically affects how we think. Here are a couple of new ones.

The first study involved two experiments. In the first, 86 American college students were asked questions about gears in relation to each other. For example, “If five gears are arranged in a line, and you move the first gear clockwise, what will the final gear do?” The participants were videotaped as they talked their way through the problem. But here’s the interesting thing: half the students wore Velcro gloves attached to a board, preventing them from moving their hands. The control half were similarly prevented from moving their feet — giving them the same experience of restriction without the limitation on hand movement.

Those who gestured commonly used perceptual-motor strategies (simulation of gear movements) in solving the puzzles. Those who were prevented from gesturing, as well as those who chose not to gesture, used abstract, mathematical strategies much more often.

The second experiment confirmed the results with 111 British adults.

The findings are consistent with the hypothesis that gestures highlight and structure perceptual-motor information, and thereby make such information more likely to be used in problem solving.

That can be helpful, but not always. Even when we are solving problems that have to do with motion and space, more abstract strategies may sometimes be more efficient, and thus an inability to use the body may force us to come up with better strategies.

The other study is quite different. In this study, college students searched for a single letter embedded within images of fractals and other complex geometrical patterns. Some did this while holding their hands close to the images; others kept their hands in their laps, far from the images. This may sound a little wacky, but previous research has shown that perception and attention are affected by how close our hands are to an object. Items near our hands tend to take priority.

In the first experiment, eight randomly chosen images were periodically repeated 16 times, while the other 128 images were only shown once. The target letter was a gray “T” or “L”; the images were colorful.

As expected, finding the target letter was faster the more times the image had been presented. Hand position didn’t affect learning.

In the second experiment, a new set of students were shown the same shown-once images, while 16 versions of the eight repeated images were created. These versions varied in their color components. In this circumstance, learning was slower when hands were held near the images. That is, people found it harder to recognize the commonalities among identical but differently colored patterns, suggesting they were too focused on the details to see the similarities.

These findings suggest that processing near the hands is biased toward item-specific detail. This is in keeping with earlier suggestions that the improvements in perception and attention near the hands are item-specific. It may indeed be that this increased perceptual focus is at the cost of higher-order function such as memory and learning. This would be consistent with the idea that there are two largely independent visual streams, one of which is mainly concerned with visuospatial operations, and the other of which is primarily for more cognitive operations (such as object identification).

All this may seem somewhat abstruse, but it is worryingly relevant in these days of hand-held technological devices.

The point of both these studies is not that one strategy (whether of hand movements or hand position) is wrong. What you need to take away is the realization that hand movements and hand position can affect the way you approach problems, and the things you perceive. Sometimes you want to take a more physical approach to a problem, or pick out the fine details of a scene or object — in these cases, moving your hands, or holding something in or near your hands, is a good idea. Other times you might want to take a more abstract/generalized approach — in these cases, you might want to step back and keep your body out of it.

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