Gestures help words become memorable

From New York City, at a meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society

Hand gestures amplify the impact of spoken words, rather than serving merely as embellishment for speech, say Emily S. Cross and Elizabeth A. Franz, both of the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. People recall more of what they hear if the speaker communicates with relevant hand gestures, the researchers find.

Cross and Franz studied 120 college students. Each volunteer viewed three blocks of 27 video clips of a woman saying phrases such as “peel the banana” or “the square box.” In each block of clips, the speaker used gestures that paralleled phrase content, irrelevant gestures, or no gestures. Listeners named as many phrases as they could recall after each block.

Participants remembered a majority of phrases spoken with relevant gestures. Recall slumped substantially for gesture-free phrases and was even worse for phrases accompanied by irrelevant gestures. Students who themselves frequently use gestures as they speak remembered fewer irrelevant-gesture phrases than did those who rarely add gestures to their speech.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.