Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | February 4, 2010

Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally

A nice article in the New York Times, based on Moving Through Time, by L. K. Miles et al., and Weight as an Embodiment of Importance, by N. B. Jostmann et al. From an abstract for the second paper:

Four studies show that the abstract concept of importance is grounded in bodily experiences of weight. Participants provided judgments of importance while they held either a heavy or a light clipboard. Holding a heavy clipboard increased judgments of monetary value (Study 1) and made participants consider fair decision-making procedures to be more important (Study 2). It also caused more elaborate thinking, as indicated by higher consistency between related judgments (Study 3) and by greater polarization of agreement ratings for strong versus weak arguments (Study 4). In line with an embodied perspective on cognition, these findings suggest that, much as weight makes people invest more physical effort in dealing with concrete objects, it also makes people invest more cognitive effort in dealing with abstract issues.

One more research cited is even more interesting: Children Learn When Their Teacher’s Gestures and Speech Differ, by Melissa A. Singer and Susan Goldin-Meadow. Abstract:

Teachers gesture when they teach, and those gestures do not always convey the same information as their speech. Gesture thus offers learners a second message. To determine whether learners take advantage of this offer, we gave 160 children in the third and fourth grades instruction in mathematical equivalence. Children were taught either one or two problem-solving strategies in speech accompanied by no gesture, gesture conveying the same strategy, or gesture conveying a different strategy. The children were likely to profit from instruction with gesture, but only when it conveyed a different strategy than speech did. Moreover, two strategies were effective in promoting learning only when the second strategy was taught in gesture, not speech. Gesture thus has an active hand in learning.

[with thanks to muriel]


  1. The link to the NYT-article seems not to work.

  2. You can find a good link to the NYT article at the Alex’s Facebook page.

  3. The article about the mismatched speech and gesture is truly delightful. It flies in the face of many orthodox pedagogical ideas, showing them for what they truly are. Thanks for posting, Sasha.

  4. These articles give us some hints of why certain mathematical notations, such as arrows for maps, for example, became so popular. They appear to be the pictograms of our intuitive understanding of the subject. We also can extend the platitude “1 picture is worth 1000 words” by adding that 1 movie is worth many pictures and 1 manipulatable applet is even better than that.

  5. And here is a good link to the NYT article.

  6. A new article: “How your body does your thinking”

  7. On the relevance of early language usage (I don’t know where else to post this link): “Words influence infants’ cognition from first months of life”

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