The Role of Hand Gestures in Memory

Posted May 11th, 2010 at 3:10 pm.

Anna Dejdar

Mentor: Professor Robert Wozniak

Hand gestures are unprompted movements of the hands that accompany speech. They fall into various categories: Beats, which add emphasis to accompanying speech, Deictics, which indicate referents, like for example points, and Representationals, which stand for the referent either iconically or metaphorically. Most research on gesture has focused on the specific role that hand gestures of these various types play in communication with others. Recently; however, researchers have argued that hand gestures are important not only for communication, but because they represent and perhaps even facilitate the speaker’s thoughts. This has led to interest in the cognitive functions of gesture. Some of this research has looked at the role of gestures in memory. Can accompanying speech with gesture help an individual to remember better? If so, does it matter what type of gesture is used? And if gesture is restricted, will an individual remember less?

Goodlaxson (2006) recently conducted a study in Professor Robert Wozniak’s lab which was designed to examine the specific role of hand gestures in remembering details of a cartoon story. In the first phase of the study, all of the participants had to read a cartoon story silently. After this, half of the participants had to retell the story to a collaborator from memory and the other half had to reread it out loud to the collaborator. In the third phase, all of the participants had to retell the story to an experimenter; however half of the participants were free to gesture and the other half had their gestures restricted. During the entire process, the participants were filmed with a video camera so that the experimenters could later mark how many details of the original story the participants could remember and where they gestured, if at all, during the retelling of the story. Preliminary analyses of these data suggested that participants in the Retell group used far more spontaneous hand gestures than those in the Reread group. In addition, there was a tendency for participants who were free to gesture during the second retelling to remember more of the specific details of the story than people who had their gestures restricted.

The primary tasks of this summer’s science fellowship involve completion of the remaining data coding and analyses for this project. Therefore, for my summer research I will be: a) completing the rechecking of all of the data coding and calculating reliabilities for gesture coding; b) coding gesture during the second retelling; and c) analyzing the types of details that were both remembered and gestured during the first and second retellings of the story to evaluate differences in the likelihood of recall during the second retelling as a function of whether or not specific details were accompanied by gesture. This will involve learning how to calculate behavioral reliabilities, to code gesture during a complex narrative, creating an Excel spread sheet in which specific details and whether or not they were gestured are represented for each participant and across participants, and carrying out relevant statistical analyses of these data.


Goodlaxson, A. (2006). Does Gesture Help you Remember? Memory in Relation to Differential Input and Degree of Gesture Restriction. Bryn Mawr College Senior Thesis.

Filed under: 2007,Dejdar, Anna,Wozniak, Dr. Robert by Ann Dixon

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