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Dr Mingyuan Chu
University of Aberdeen
Research Project Grant

Giving cognition a helping hand: how gesture facilitates spatial thinking

Mingyuan Chu's project aims to investigate how gesture facilitates spatial problem-solving and whether gestural benefit is transferable and durable

Finger pointing on a map

Spatial ability is a fundamental component of human cognition. It refers to the capacity to understand, remember and reason object features and the spatial relations among objects. Every time when we think about how to assemble a piece of furniture, plan a route to an unfamiliar destination, or pack a suitcase, we engage in spatial thinking. Not only are these spatial skills essential to everyday living, it is also the key to success for many professions, such as engineers, architects, artists and scientists. Given the crucial role of spatial skills in many aspects of human activities, discovering effective methods to improve spatial problem-solving skills is of great interest to both cognitive scientists and the general public.

Recent research has identified close links between the use of gesture and spatial thinking. For example, using hand gestures to simulate object orientation and rotation help people perform mental transformations of objects. People remember a route better when using gestures to trace the route during the learning phase. Although there is ample evidence that producing gestures can benefit spatial problem-solving, it remains unclear how exactly gesturing facilitates spatial thinking. In addition, it is also unknown whether benefits gained from gesturing in one spatial task can be transferred to a different spatial task and whether the effect of gestural benefit is long-lasting. 

To fill these knowledge gaps, we will develop an innovative paradigm, where eye-movement and gesture will be measured simultaneously, to investigate the cognitive mechanism underlying gestural benefit during spatial thinking. We will also test the generalisability and durability of gestural benefit in various spatial tasks. Findings from this research will make significant contributions to our knowledge on the functions of gesture in thinking and learning. It will also have broader implications for the current debate in psychology and philosophy about the role of bodily action in cognition. 

Importantly, outcomes from this project will have practical implications for the design of learning environments in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines. So far, educational practices have not considered gesture as a tool to support spatial thinking in STEM classes, in fact many schools discourage the use of hands in the classrooms because it is “babyish”. Findings from this project help further define conditions under which gesturing supports spatial thinking and identify the individuals who are more likely to benefit from gesturing. These could potentially offer a new pathway to increase success in STEM disciplines.

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