Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Individual Differences in the Gesture Effect on Working Memory

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Individual Differences in the Gesture Effect on Working Memory

Article excerpt

Abstract Co-speech gestures have been shown to interact with working memory (WM). However, no study has investigated whether there are individual differences in the effect of gestures on WM. Combining a novel gesture/no-gesture task and an operation span task, we examined the differences in WM accuracy between individuals who gestured and individuals who did not gesture in relation to their WM capacity. Our results showed individual differences in the gesture effect on WM. Specifically, only individuals with low WM capacity showed a reduced WM accuracy when they did not gesture. Individuals with lowWM capacity who did gesture, as well as high-capacity individuals (irrespective of whether they gestured or not), did not show the effect. Our findings show that the interaction between co-speech gestures andWMis affected by an individual's WM load.

Keywords Gesture .Working memory . Individual differences in memory capacity


Working memory (WM) capacity is defined as the ability to maintain and manipulate a limited number of relevant items in memory over a short period of time (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974; Cowan, 2001; Daneman & Carpenter, 1980). It varies widely among individuals and correlates with many cognitive processes, such as general fluid intelligence, problem solving, planning, or language comprehension (Engle, Tuholski, Laughlin, & Conway, 1999; Kane et al., 2004; Unsworth, Redick, Heitz, Broadway, & Engle, 2009). Recently, a few studies from the emerging field of gesture research have also related WM to the production of co-speech gestures and have shown a gesture effect on working memory-that is, an increase in WM accuracy due to gesturing (Cook, Yip, & Goldin-Meadow, 2011; Goldin-Meadow, Nusbaum, Kelly, & Wagner, 2001; Ping & Goldin-Meadow, 2010; Wagner, Nusbaum, & Goldin-Meadow, 2004). Co-speech gestures are meaningful hand movements that are semantically and temporally integrated with the speech they accompany. Importantly, they differ from sign language and other communicative hand signs in that they cannot replace speech and show a low degree of conventionalization; that is, the relationship between their meaning and form is highly dependent on the context (Kendon, 2004; McNeill, 1992).

Research studies investigating the relation of co-speech gestures and WM typically use a dual-task paradigm in which participants concurrently perform a memory task and an explanation task. For instance, Goldin-Meadow et al. (2001) measured the number of letters that participants remembered while giving an explanation to a math problem. The results showed that participants recalled more letters correctly when they were allowed to gesture during the explanation (gesture condition) than when they were not gesturing (no-gesture condition). In a similar paradigm, Wagner et al. (2004) showed improved WM accuracy using spatial patterns rather than letters as to-be-remembered items. Replacing a mathematical problem with Piagetian conservation as the explanation task, Ping and Goldin- Meadow (2010) found that the WM effect can also be observed without a visual representation of the explanation problem, suggesting that gestures may be related to internal, rather than external, processes. Finally, the results of Cook et al.'s (2011) recent study confirmed that improved WM in the dual-task paradigm is specifically related to co-speech gestures, not meaningless hand movements. In sum, these empirical findings suggest that co-speech gestures have a facilitative effect on WM performance.

In a dual-task paradigm, the execution of two tasks results in a competition for a shared and limited resource-that is, WM-and the resulting trade-offs are reflected in the accuracy on the WM task (Wagner et al., 2004). Individual differences inWMcapacity relate to such trade-offs and, hence, should be expected in the effect gesturing has on WM. However, up to now, no study has addressed the question of whether the gesture effect depends on the speaker's WM capacity. …

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