I always enjoy finding research about memory improvement and brains function that involve some off-the-wall and fun way to come to a conclusion. As I have said before, making learning fun is an excellent memory tool, and I enjoy repeating these stories when I come across them.

The two studies I am about to relate involve embodied cognition – where what we do physically can have an effect on our thinking.

In the first study, 86 American college students were asked questions about “gears” and how they related to one another. For example: “If five gears are arranged in a line, and you move the first gear clockwise, what will the final gear do?” The sessions were videoed as the students worked through the problems out loud. What’s fun was that half of the students wore Velcro gloves attached to a board, which didn’t allow them to use their hands; while the other half of the students (the control group) were not allowed to use their feet. Both groups experienced restrictions. The control group was allowed to use their hands, however.

Those who could used gestures to simulate the movement of gears, those who were not able to gesture, as well as those who chose not to, used abstract mathematical strategies more often.

The second phase of the same study used 111 British adults and came out with similar results. These findings are consistent with the presumption that gestures emphasis and build perceptual-motor information that is more likely to be used in problem solving. These findings may be helpful, but there are situations where the inability to use body language will force us to look for different strategies to come up with the answers.

The second study is differs altogether. In this, college students were asked to look at fractals and other complex geometric patterns and to search for a single letter embedded within the images. Some held their hands close to the images; others kept their hands far from the images – in their laps. Previous research has shown that items near our hands tend to take priority, and perception and attention are affected by how close our hands are to an object.

In the first phase of the experiment, the subjects were shown 136 colorful images, eight of which were selected randomly and repeated 16 times, while the other 128 were only shown once. The letters they were searching for were gray “T” or “L.” It’s not surprising that the letters were easier to find the more times the images were presented, and hand position did not have any affect on learning.

In the second phase, a new set of students were shown the same shown-once images as the subjects in phase one, while 16 different versions of the eight repeated images were created with varied color hue changes. Here learning was slower when hands were held near the images. In this the subjects found it harder to recognize the similarities among identical images that had different color patterns, which could suggest they were too focused on the details and not the similarities of the images.

This is in keeping with earlier findings that the improvements in perception and attention near the hands are item specific. It may be that this increased perceptual focus is at the cost of higher-order function such as memory and learning. This would be consistent with the idea that the two visual streams are largely independent, one mainly concerned with visual-spatial operations, and the other for more cognitive operations (such as object identification).

The gist of these experiments may seem strange, but they are extremely relevant in these days of hand-held technological devices. The point is not that one strategy (whether of hand movements or hand position) is wrong; but that hand movements and hand position can affect the way you approach problems, and the things you perceive.

There may be times when a more physical approach to a problem, or when picking out fine details from a scene or object by making motions with your hands or holding something is a good idea. At other times you may want to take a more abstract/generalized approach, and keep your distance and body language out of it.

This is Ron White and since I like to use my hands when talking, I find these studies about the use of hands for certain memory tasks to be very interesting.



Mempowered – How your hands affect your thinking: http://www.memory-key.com/research/news/how-your-hands-affect-your-thinking