Hosted by Sandra Tsing Loh, The Loh Down on Science is a fun way to get your daily dose of science plus a dash of humor in less than two minutes.
Hosted by Sandra Tsing Loh
Airs Weekdays 2:31, 3:31 and 5:49 a.m.

Crazy Hand Gestures

Why do people talk with their hands? 

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Is it because they’re Italian?  Nervous?  Or could it be a way to convey meaning? 

Researchers in England and the Netherlands analyzed three different types of movements.  Gestures that mimic an action, like opening a jar.  Gestures that move towards the listener, as if presenting an idea – like a teacher might.  And gestures that reveal uncertainty, often with palms up, as if to say, “I dunno.”

The researchers ran participants through a battery of cognitive and emotional tests.  They found that gesturing often helps speakers more than listeners!  People with less ability to conceptualize ideas used mimicking and presenting gestures more.  These helped speakers understand what they were describing and fix the images in their own heads.

But there’s more.  Both presenting and uncertainty gestures showed empathy, as in: “I like you; I want you to understand what I’m saying.”  The more vigorous the gestures, the greater the empathy.

So next time when your friend knocks over your coffee when gesticulating, don’t flip her the bird.  How 'bout a hug?  Okay.


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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.