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How to Think with Your Hands

Our hands help us do lots of physical things: weed gardens, button buttons, and pick noses. However, it turns out that our hands can also help us think. 

According to a recent study, explaining a task using hand gestures may be even more profitable than practicing it. To me it makes sense that practicing a task will help me get better at it.

It also makes sense that if I were to explain to someone how to do a

task using gestures, I might also get better at it. But can

gesturing how to do a task actually make me better at it than

practicing the task itself?

The authors of the study, Susan Goldin-Meadow and Sian L. Beilock, summarize their research about this phenomenon:

Gesture is a unique case because, although it is an action, it does not have a direct effect on the world the way other actions usually do. Gesture has its effect by representing ideas. We have argued here that actions whose primary function is to represent ideas--that is, gestures--can influence thinking, perhaps even more powerfully than actions whose function is to affect the world more directly.
Another study used an entirely different angle to observe the impact of gesture on thought. This study's somewhat whimsical goal was to see if acting out metaphors about creativity could produce creativity itself. For one of the experiments, the researchers fashioned a box and then tested to see if subjects thought more creatively when sitting inside or outside it. They were literally "thinking outside the box." Get it?

A similar experiment from the same study required subjects to generate creative solutions to a problem by holding up a hand. Some subjects were asked to hold up their right hand and then their left hand while others only ever held up their right hand. The study's results showed that subjects who were asked to look at the issue "on one hand, then on the other hand" came up with more unique answers to the problem.

Right- or left-handedness is also related to the way you think and how your brain is set up. For instance, most right-handed people have the majority of their language activity in the left side of their brain. However, left-handed people can have their language-related area in the left or right side of the brain (or both).

Also, left-handed people usually have a bigger corpus callosum, the structure that bridges the brain's two hemispheres. This feature may provide left-handed people with more interhemispheral connectivity, which may be related to a higher incidence of left-handedness among gifted children (those who have an IQ over 132) compared to non-gifted children.

Whether you are left-handed or right-handed, your hands work hard in more ways than you may expect. Sometimes it's important to let them cut loose and have a little fun.

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Katherine Dickinson
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