There are small hand gestures that say much more about us than we think. The hands are the ones that betray us the most. Not only do they reveal our nervousness, but also our inconsistencies and, recently, it has been discovered that they can even be an indicator of our level of intelligence or, to be more specific, reflect our level of cognitive processing.
Embodied Cognition: thinking with the body
In the field of psychology, the theory of "Embodied Cognition" is gaining ground, which could be translated as "thinking with the body". This new current argues that thought does not develop in a confined space, limited to our mind, but is expressed in the body. That is, the cognitive work of the brain is directly reflected in our body.
From this perspective, hand gestures constitute a kind of channel through which we express our thoughts, even if we are not always aware of them. The movements we make with our hands as we speak constitute a kind of second language, and add extra information that is not in our words, exposing the thought process behind them.
Hand gestures reveal the thought process
Susan Goldin-Meadow, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has spent years studying the gestures we make as we learn and solve problems. She is convinced that “we change our minds by moving our hands”.
In his research he came across an interesting clue as to how the gestures we make with our hands reveal our intelligence. These are "misalignments" between verbal expression and physical gestures. For example, a person may say that a heavier ball falls faster than a light ball, but makes a gesture indicating that they both fall at the same speed, which is correct. This discrepancy reveals that thinking is functioning at its maximum capacity and that the person is in a state of transition, moving from one level of understanding to a higher one.
Often the thoughts that our hands express are new and more advanced ideas about the problem we are trying to solve. Our conscious mind has not yet assimilated these notions through language because it is a much more complex process, but it has already captured and expressed them through gestures.
Therefore, those hand gestures that imply a "contradiction" with our verbal speech are actually samples of our intelligence in full action and the cognitive work we are developing in the background to solve the problem.
Moving our hands also makes us smarter because it speeds up learning
The Embodied Cognition Theory is a two-way street. It means that not only is thought reflected through the body but also that hand movements accelerate learning, bringing incipient knowledge to the level of consciousness and contributing to the understanding of new concepts.
A study conducted at the University of Rochester found that students who gesticulated while learning algebra were nearly three times more likely to understand what they had learned than their peers who did not make hand gestures.
In a second experiment, these psychologists found that college students who gesticulated by telling a short story could later remember better and more details, suggesting that gestures help us think and remember.
Therefore, the gestures we make with our hands are a sort of "secret code". In fact, chances are that you too have sometimes used your hands automatically to make calculations by drawing numbers in the air.
This is because those movements help us gather information and integrate it. Hand gestures have been shown to facilitate mental representation, especially when we have to solve complex problems, helping us to implement some abstract ideas.
As if that weren't enough, Columbia University psychologists have shown that hand gestures also help us improve the way we speak. When we gesture, we speak more fluently, make fewer mistakes, and show less hesitation.