From mind to hand: Gesture and the spatial grounding of mental representations
Since the inception of the field, scientists in psychology have been eager to glean insights into the mental processes and representations on which human communication rests. Recent theories have revolutionised how we think about this domain by proposing that mental representations involve embodied simulations which are based on our past experiences of perception and action. For example, when we think about stroking a cat, this involves activity in those areas of our brain that are active when we actually see a cat (thus simulating the cat’s colour and appearance), plus those brain areas involved in planning and carrying out movements when we interact with a cat (simulating reaching out to the cat to stroke it), as well as those areas used for processing sound (simulating the cat’s purring). In other words, embodied simulations allow us to re-enact and re-combine past experiences into new mental representations. These kinds of representations are believed to be the basis for language production and comprehension.
However, language is about more than words, because we frequently produce co-speech gestures while talking. These spontaneous hand movements are an integral part of human language as they are very closely tied to speech and carry important information which often goes beyond that conveyed in words. Moreover, they provide an additional window into the speaker’s mind by offering a visible embodiment of the underlying mental representation. In short, we believe that co-speech gestures are an ideal means with which to test embodied theories of thought and mental representation. To date, empirical work on embodied theories has focused primarily on verbal language (thus neglecting an important part of communication), while current theories of gesture are only just beginning to consider a simulation basis for gestures. Both embodied and gesture fields, therefore, urgently require empirical research to test and expand their claims.
Funding from the Leverhulme Trust will allow us to study how people share the contents of their minds with others and the nature of the representations underlying this process. By examining theories of embodied cognition in conjunction with gesture, we will test the assumption that conceptual knowledge is grounded in experience of our bodies and the space around us. Since speakers depict information in a defined gesture space in front of their bodies, any spatial information in the mental representation could be expected to emerge in gesture. Furthermore, the addressee who sees these gestures could be expected to integrate this spatial information into their mental representation of whatever the speaker is describing. Using a combination of gesture, psycholinguistic and psychophysical experimental techniques, we aim to investigate the nature of mental representations involved in the production and comprehension of co-speech gesture, and to advance our understanding of how language, perception, action and thought share common mental resources.
Duration of the project