Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought

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9780226561325: Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal about Thought

Using data from more than ten years of research, David McNeill shows that gestures do not simply form a part of what is said and meant but have an impact on thought itself. Hand and Mind persuasively argues that because gestures directly transfer mental images to visible forms, conveying ideas that language cannot always express, we must examine language and gesture together to unveil the operations of the mind.

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Review:

Human thought is a kind of storytelling, the cognitive scientist Jerome Bruner has argued, an evolving narrative that we constantly and unconsciously construct in order to make sense of the world around us. One expression of that interior storytelling--namely language--was given to us, said the sardonic French philosopher Talleyrand, so that we can disguise those very thoughts, hide them from others behind a mask of words.

David McNeill suggests that another component of storytelling/thinking is a kind of parallel language, one that is far more revealing of what's going on inside our heads. That language is made up of gestures--those fingered jabs and sweeps into the air, locating us and our actors in the imaginary space of stories. When we relate what happened in a movie we've just seen, McNeill writes, we retrace the plot gesturally; our shrugs and symbols betray our opinions, and a skilled observer can literally read our minds from our movements.

Whereas most human languages have their grammars and dictionaries, McNeill continues, linguists have paid little attention to gestural language over the years. This may be, he suggests, because gestures are "idiosyncratic and not subject to a system of standards." They are, however, remarkably similar from person to person, and even from culture to culture. His endlessly interesting book hints at a new avenue of research, at new mysteries of the mind to explore. --Gregory McNamee

From the Back Cover:

What is the relation between gestures and speech? In terms of symbolic forms, of course, the spontaneous and unwitting gestures we make while talking differ sharply from spoken language itself. Whereas spoken language is linear, segmented, standardized, and arbitrary, gestures are global, synthetic, idiosyncratic, and imagistic. In Hand and Mind, David McNeill presents a bold theory of the essential unity of speech and the gestures that accompany it. This long-awaited, provocative study argues that the unity of gestures and language far exceeds the surface level of speech noted by previous researchers and in fact also includes the semantic and pragmatic levels of language. In effect, the whole concept of language must be altered to take into account the nonsegmented, instantaneous, and holistic images conveyed by gestures. McNeill and his colleagues carefully devised a standard methodology for examining the speech and gesture behavior of individuals engaged in narrative discourse. A research subject is shown a cartoon like the 1950 Canary Row--a classic Sylvester and Tweedy Bird caper that features Sylvester climbing up a downspout, swallowing a bowling ball and slamming into a brick wall. After watching the cartoon, the subject is videotaped recounting the story from memory to a listener who has not seen the cartoon. Painstaking analysis of the videotapes revealed that although the research subjects--children as well as adults, some neurologically impaired--represented a wide variety of linguistic groupings, the gestures of people speaking English and a half dozen other languages manifest the same principles. Relying on data from more than ten years of research, McNeill shows thatgestures do not simply form a part of what is said and meant but have an impact on thought itself. He persuasively argues that because gestures directly transfer mental images to visible forms, conveying ideas that language cannot always express, we must examine language and gesture together to unveil the operations of the mind.

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