Beat gestures encode spatial semantics

AbstractPeople gesture when they talk, and often gestures carry information about their thoughts. Beat gestures, however, which are simple flicks of the hand, are widely believed to carry no semantic information. Here we challenge this belief with a quantitative analysis of more than 5000 spontaneous co-speech gestures. We show that beat gestures carry hidden information about the spatial scaffolding of human thoughts. Participants told stories suggesting literal or metaphorical motion in one of four directions: up, down, left, or right. They produced beat gestures in the direction implied by the story, much more frequently than would be expected by chance. Beat gestures were congruent with the story direction not only during literal spatial language, but also when participants used spatial metaphors for abstract motion, and when they expressed the same ideas without using any spatial language. Beat gestures are pervasive and meaningful, and reveal the spatial foundations of abstract thoughts.

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