Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Speaking Science: are gestures & words the same?

Gesture model Meg Lanzarone (Photo: Patrick Gannon)
We talk a lot about gestures here—how you can use them to convey a powerful message,  how some speakers use them to create a dynamic impression, how they can help you find the right words, and how they can help your audience understand your message.

So it might be helpful for you to hear that scientists think at least some of those gestures head to the same place in your brain that processes spoken words. You can pretend to juggle or say, “Look at me, I’m headed to the circus!” and to your audience's brains, it’s all same. It’s all part of the one-stop translation service we have in our brains to turn symbols into meaning, according to a new study by Hofstra University neurobiologist Patrick Gannon and his colleagues.

Gannon and the others studied a special kind of gesture, sometimes called a pantomime or an emblem. They have very specific meanings that most of us understand immediately when we see them. If you pretend to unscrew a tight lid off of a jar, that’s a pantomime. If you lift your finger to your lips to let me know it’s time to be quiet, that’s an emblem.

The researchers decided to take a deep peek into the brains of people as they watched a Hofstra acting student perform a pantomime or emblem gesture (pretending to thread a needle, for instance) and later speak the meaning of the gesture (“I’m threading a needle”) Using MRI scans, they found that the gesture and the words made the same region of the brain light up with activity.

Does any of this mean that gestures aren’t as necessary—if it’s all heading to the same processing center, isn’t speaking enough? “In a sense it’ very natural for us to gesture.” said Gannon. “There are always going to be times when a pantomime can deliver visual information that speaking cannot do so easily across the room, such as, like ‘It’s way hot in here’ or ‘That food smells or tastes great.’”

Gestures can also help you access the information in your own brain that you want to communicate to others, he said. “I always like to think gestures can stand alone or serve as part of a unified package which can include whole body language, facial expressions, and speaking.”

Gannon became interested in gesture because he’s also an anthropologist who studies the origin of human language. This particular discovery might mean that gestures were the great-great-grandparents of spoken human language, he thinks. Speech could have “piggybacked” on to the brain circuits already at work interpreting gesture.

So where does that leave PowerPoint? Gannon points out that writing and reading are relatively recent developments in the 5 million-years of human history, but it’s likely that the same “flexible” systems are at work in your audience’s brain when you start up your slide show.

(Editor's note:  This post was contributed by freelance writer Becky Ham reports and writes for The Eloquent Woman on the science behind public speaking.)

Are you a member of The Eloquent Woman on Facebook? Join our thriving community to get extra content, early input into my blog posts, and to share your questions, photos and video.

New! Sign up for The Eloquent Woman's free monthly newsletter, Step Up Your Speaking

Shop for books, technology and supplies for speakers at The Eloquent Woman's Speaker Resources Store

1 comment:

Frank (Francesco) S. Adamo said...

As a scientist by education (I have a M.S. degree in analytical chemistry), I know most scientists use their left brain nearly exclusively. That's why, in my opinion, very few use gestures while giving presentations.

As I understand it, we capture visions in our brain, more so than audio; therefore, gestures visualizes spoken language. I would have to study Gannon's study; however and with no scientific proof, I would tend to believe that visual images are stored eleswhere than our audio images.

As a chemist and a speaker, the only thing I know definitely, is that a science presenter who can visualize his/her presentation visually, i.e. gestures, will be a better presenter.