Why you should care
Because the keys to creativity might lie in your own hands.
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New Year’s Eve debacle aside, Mariah Carey is known for soaring performances that ooze emotion. She infuses her songs with dramatic intensity — accompanied by equally impressive gesticulations, using her hands to point, flutter and sweep through the air as she deftly crests each run. Sure, it’s tempting to dismiss her gestures as diva-esque flourishes, but there’s scientific evidence to suggest that gesticulating can spur creativity. A recent Psychological Science study found that
the more children gestured, the more creative ideas they generated.
“This is really a very interesting study about how gesture might push the bounds of new thoughts,” says Susan Goldin-Meadow, of the University of Chicago. Sure, earlier studies had found that gesturing can help children with certain types of problem-solving, like science and math tasks. But taking those conclusions one step further, Elizabeth Kirk of the University of York and Carine Lewis of the University of Hertfordshire wondered if gesturing might also foster more creative thinking. To find out, they asked 78 children, ages 9 to 11, to look at images of various household items (such as a button or a shoe) and come up with as many alternative uses for those objects as possible. One group of children could freely move their hands, while the rest participated in the experiment twice — once with their hands free, and a second time wearing special mittens that restricted their movements.
The more the children gestured, the higher the number of valid novel uses they identified (“valid” meaning different from the object’s intended use — like using a newspaper to swat flies, not simply reading it). Children came up with more novel uses when they were free to gesture than when they were wearing the mittens, but not significantly more — possibly because, even with their mittened hands, they could rely on strategies besides gesturing to foster creative thinking. Think drawing from memories of other objects they’d been assigned, or using an object’s intended purpose as a springboard to more imaginative ones.
To explore whether gesturing might cause children to think more creatively, Kirk and Lewis recruited 54 children, ages 8 to 11, for a new experiment. They were given the same task as participants in the earlier experiment, except half received explicit instructions to show how they’d use the objects with their hands, while half did not. Sure enough, the children who were encouraged to incorporate gesture thought of significantly more valid novel uses than those who weren’t.
Gesturing might have helped the children by freeing up cognitive space, allowing them to churn out ideas faster.
How might gesturing spur creativity? “There are a few theories,” Lewis wrote in an email. Gesturing might have helped the children imagine what they could physically do with an object, or freed up cognitive space, allowing them to churn out ideas faster. It might also “help loosen the connections to the concrete,” by generalizing knowledge about one specific scenario to other similar (but not identical) scenarios, Goldin-Meadow says. For instance, her lab found that gesturing about a set of objects makes you more likely to consider solutions that go beyond a particular math problem. While thinking of alternate uses for an object is different from learning, she adds, perhaps gesturing helps you abstract away from the particulars of an object to generate more hypotheses about its function.
To be sure, the researchers used a highly specific definition of creativity, says Andrea Stevenson Won, of Cornell University. Lewis agrees they still need to investigate other creative tasks to determine whether gesturing might help improve creativity as a whole. Moreover, there’s no proof that gesturing in conversation or performance helps generate novel ideas. People gesture for numerous reasons, Won says, and the creativity that performers demonstrate might not be the same as the creativity used in the study. “There is the idea that [performers] are more naturally creative, but we really don’t know this,” Lewis says. (Sorry, Mariah!)
If gesturing really does boost creativity, the potential benefits are many, considering that creativity also helps with problem-solving, possibly even math, Lewis adds. And while they saw similar patterns in a study of adults, suggesting that their findings are not limited to children, “we need to replicate to be sure.” But it certainly can’t hurt for adults to gesture more, Won says. “There isn’t too much to lose when you’re trying different strategies to prompt creative thinking, especially if it’s as easy and riskless as trying to move your hands.”