Monday, October 17, 2011

High Fluid Intelligence, Gestures, and Simulation

In an interesting study, German researchers found that increased hand gestures of 11th graders predict their correct solving of a chessboard visual analogy problem as well as predicting increased cortical thickness and higher fluid intelligence.

"...all the students talked about the same things in their explanations, but almost no one actually mentioned anything about rotation. But by looking at their hands – not by listening to what they were saying – we could distinguish between people with high and average fluid intelligence. We think that these hand gestures mimicked the strategy that the students used in solving the task. That is, they rotated the patterns in their imagination, just as they did with their hands. This suggests that individuals with high fluid intelligence engage more in simulation when imagining the problem than those with average fluid intelligence.

In fact, when we made Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans of the students’ brains, we found that the cortical tissue in several areas of the brain was thicker among those students with high fluid intelligence who gestured more than among those with average fluid intelligence.

Our results indicate that the cortical thickness of those brain regions is related to both high fluid intelligence and the production of gestures. We do not know with certainty yet, but this result suggests that some brain areas may be more developed for the students with high fluid intelligence, possibly like a muscle that grows larger when it is trained.

Recent theories about the processes of thought emphasize the role of so-called action simulation. Evidence from other brain imaging experiments show that some of the same areas of the brain are activated when people only imagine performing an action as when they actually perform it. One theory proposes that these strongly activated simulated actions are manifested as gestures.

We do not know yet whether gesturing facilitates the development of fluid intelligence or whether it is a by-product. But we do know that children who are asked to gesture in certain ways while learning new tasks learn better than children who are asked not to gesture. Considering that gesturing benefits children while learning, it is possible that gesturing plays a role in the development of fluid intelligence, perhaps by simulating action. If this proves to be true, children might be able to literally give themselves a hand in their own development by gesturing more."

It's interesting to think that teaching children to problem solve certain types of problems should involve strategies that take into account that fact that one is trying to train the imagery of the students. Just verbally saying back the steps of a problem or even watching an explanation won't internalize the imagery. To really 'get' certain problems, we have to enter into the simulation and perceive the question and solution in a bodily way.


  1. do you have a publication for these results?

  2. I love that scientists are beginning to see that the body alters are brain as much as our mind; that motor movements can aid learning.
    Neuroplsticity happens in all areas; so why should learning only focus on parts?

  3. The original article is in Intelligence. We'll paste the abstract below, but we haven't been able to find the full text free access. If anyone does, please let us know.

    On the relationship between fluid intelligence, gesture production, and brain structure☆
    Isabell Wartenburgera, b, c, , , Esther Kühnb, d, Uta Sassenbergc, e, Manja Fothe, Elizabeth A. Franzd, Elke van der Meerc, e

    Volume 38, Issue 1, January-February 2010, Pages 193-201

    Individuals scoring high in fluid intelligence tasks generally perform very efficiently in problem solving tasks and analogical reasoning tasks presumably because they are able to select the task-relevant information very quickly and focus on a limited set of task-relevant cognitive operations. Moreover, individuals with high fluid intelligence produce more representational hand and arm gestures when describing a geometric analogy task than individuals with average fluid intelligence. No study has yet addressed the relationship between intelligence, gesture production, and brain structure, to our knowledge. That was the purpose of our study. To characterize the relation between intelligence, gesture production, and brain structure we assessed the frequency of representational gestures and cortical thickness values in a group of adolescents differing in fluid intelligence. Individuals scoring high in fluid intelligence showed higher accuracy in the geometric analogy task and produced more representational gestures (in particular more movement gestures) when explaining how they solved the task and showed larger cortical thickness values in some regions in the left hemisphere (namely the pars opercularis, superior frontal, and temporal cortex) than individuals with average fluid intelligence. Moreover, the left pars opercularis (a part of Broca's area) and left transverse temporal cortex showed larger cortical thickness values in participants who produced representational and in particular movement gestures compared to those who did not. Our results thus indicate that cortical thickness of those brain regions is related to both high fluid intelligence and the production of gestures. Results are discussed in the gestures-as-simulated-action framework that states that gestures result from simulated perception and simulated action that underlie embodied language and mental imagery.

  4. This is fascinating. My son who just turned 9 loves the Megazord and Gao toys from Asia that transform in the most complex ways. They are so complex people make videos on YouTube showing how to transform them into the various configurations. I've noticed my son will actually do virtual transformation of the toys while walking or sitting. He moves his hands as if he is working with the toy, and I assume while visualizing the transformation. The first toy he got like this (Gao Knight) he ditched the directions and transformed the whole thing in less than 10 minutes. It would have taken me hours with those directions, and I'm really good with puzzles.