Skip to main content
Log in

Gesturing during mental problem solving reduces eye movements, especially for individuals with lower visual working memory capacity

  • Research Report
  • Published:
Cognitive Processing Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Non-communicative hand gestures have been found to benefit problem-solving performance. These gestures seem to compensate for limited internal cognitive capacities, such as visual working memory capacity. Yet, it is not clear how gestures might perform this cognitive function. One hypothesis is that gesturing is a means to spatially index mental simulations, thereby reducing the need for visually projecting the mental simulation onto the visual presentation of the task. If that hypothesis is correct, less eye movements should be made when participants gesture during problem solving than when they do not gesture. We therefore used mobile eye tracking to investigate the effect of co-thought gesturing and visual working memory capacity on eye movements during mental solving of the Tower of Hanoi problem. Results revealed that gesturing indeed reduced the number of eye movements (lower saccade counts), especially for participants with a relatively lower visual working memory capacity. Subsequent problem-solving performance was not affected by having (not) gestured during the mental solving phase. The current findings suggest that our understanding of gestures in problem solving could be improved by taking into account eye movements during gesturing.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2


  1. Note that since saccade and fixation frequency closely covary, very similar results are obtained when taking into account fixation frequency. A similar repeated-measures analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was performed with fixation count as the dependent variable. There were no significant between-subject effects of gesture counterbalance order, F(1, 12) = .05, p = .831, or TOH counterbalance order, F(1, 12) = .21, p = .653, nor did the interaction of counterbalancing conditions have an effect, F(1, 12) = 2.48, p = .141. Results revealed significantly lower fixation counts when participants gestured (estimated means = 143.70, SE = 5.38, 95 % CI 131.97 – 155.44) compared to when they did not gesture (estimated means = 153.298, SE = 6.30, 95 % CI 139.56 – 167.02), F(1, 12) = 8.29, p = .014, η 2p  = .41. Also, there was a significant interaction between the number of fixations and gesture and the VPT, F(1, 12) = 7.22, p = .020, η 2p  = .38.

  2. 2. As was to be expected given the fixed time available for mental problem solving and the lower fixation count, average fixation duration when gesturing was somewhat higher than when not gesturing, but a similar repeated-measure analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) on average fixation duration showed that this difference was not significant. No between-subject effects of gesture counterbalance order were found, F(1, 12) = 0.831, p = .380, TOH type, F(1, 12) = .09, p = .776, and its interaction, F(1, 12) = 0.66, p = .433. Furthermore, average fixation duration was not significantly affected by gesture (estimated means in ms = 300.25, SE = 15.16, 95 % CI 267.20– 333.25) versus no gesture (estimated means in ms = 284.80, SE = 14.96, 95 % CI 252.23 – 317.42), F(1, 12) = 0.25, p = .625, nor was there an interaction effect of gesture and VPT, F(1, 12) = 0.14, p = .716.


  • Brandt SA, Stark LW (1997) Spontaneous eye movements during visual imagery reflect the content of the visual scene. J Cogn Neurosci 9(1):27–38. doi:10.1162/jocn.1997.9.1.27

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Bremner AJ, Cowie D (2013) Developmental origins of the hand in the mind, and the role of the hand in the development of the mind. In: Radman Z (ed) The hand, an organ of the mind: What the manual tells the mental. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 255–268

    Google Scholar 

  • Cappuccio ML, Chu M, Kita S (2013) Pointing as an instrumental gesture: Gaze representation through indication. Humana. Mente: Journal of Philosophical Studies 24:125–149

    Google Scholar 

  • Chu M, Kita S (2011) The nature of gestures’ beneficial role in spatial problem solving. J Exp Psychol Gen 140(1):102–115. doi:10.1037/a0021790

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Chu M, Meyer A, Foulkes L, Kita S (2013) Individual differences in frequency and salience of speech-accompanying gestures: the role of cognitive abilities and empathy. J Exp Psychol Gen 143:694–709. doi:10.1037/a0033861

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Clark A (2013) Gesture as thought. In: Radman Z (ed) The hand, an organ of the mind: What the manual tells the mental. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 255–268

    Google Scholar 

  • Cook SW, Tanenhaus MK (2009) Embodied communication: speakers’ gestures affect listeners’ actions. Cognition 113(1):98–104. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2009.06.006

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Cooperrider, K., Wakefield, E., & Goldin-Meadow, S (2015). More than Meets the Eye: Gesture Changes Thought, even without Visual Feedback. Proceedings of the 37th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society

  • Delgado B, Gómez JC, Sarriá E (2011) Pointing gestures as a cognitive tool in young children: experimental evidence. J Exp Child Psychol 110:299–312. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2011.04.010

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Della Sala S, Gray C, Baddeley A, Wilson L (1997) The visual patterns test: A new test of short-term visual recall. Bury St. Edmunds, Thames Valley Test

    Google Scholar 

  • Garber P, Goldin-Meadow S (2002) Gesture offers insight into problem-solving in adults and children. Cognitive Science 26(6):817–831. doi:10.1016/S0364-0213(02)00087-3

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johansson R, Holsanova J, Holmqvist K (2006) Pictures and spoken descriptions elicit similar eye movements during mental imagery, both in light and in complete darkness. Cognitive Science 30(6):1053–1079. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0000_86

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Kirsh D (2009) Projection, problem space and anchoring. Proceedings of the 31st annual conference of the cognitive science society. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, pp 2310–2315

    Google Scholar 

  • Laeng B, Teodorescu DS (2002) Eye scanpaths during visual imagery reenact those of perception of the same visual scene. Cognitive Science 26(2):207–231. doi:10.1016/S0364-0213(01)00065-9

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lee IA, Preacher KJ (2013) Calculation for the test of the difference between two dependent correlations with one variable in common [Computer software]. Available from Accessed 17 Mar 2016

  • Logan T, Lowrie T, Diezmann CM (2014) Co-thought gestures: supporting students to successfully navigate map tasks. Educational Studies in Mathematics 87:87–102. doi:10.1007/s10649-014-9546-2

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Marstaller L, Burianová H (2013) Individual differences in the gesture effect on working memory. Psychon Bull Rev 20:496–500. doi:10.3758/s13423-012-0365-0

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Patsenko EG, Altmann EM (2010) How planful is routine behavior? A selective-attention model of performance in the Tower of Hanoi. J Exp Psychol Gen 139(1):95. doi:10.1037/a0018268

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Pouw WTJL, Hostetter AB (2016) Gesture as predictive action (under review)

  • Pouw WTJL, De Nooijer JA, Van Gog T, Zwaan RA, Paas F (2014) Toward a more embedded/extended perspective on the cognitive function of gestures. Frontiers in Psychology 5:359. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00359

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Pouw, W. T. J. L., Eielts, C., van Gog, T., Zwaan, R. A., & Paas, F. (under review). When gestures are put into thought: The role of co-thought gestures, visual working memory, and task complexity in problem-solving

  • Smithson L, Nicoladis E (2014) Lending a hand to imagery? The impact of visuospatial working memory interference upon iconic gesture production in a narrative task. J Nonverbal Behav 38(2):247–258

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Spivey MJ, Dale R (2011) Eye movements both reveal and influence problem solving. In: Liversedge SP, Gilchrist ID, Everling S (eds) The Oxford handbook on eye movements. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 551–562

    Google Scholar 

  • Thomas LE, Lleras A (2007) Moving eyes and moving thought: on the spatial compatibility between eye movements and cognition. Psychon Bull Rev 14(4):663–668. doi:10.3758/BF03196818

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references


This research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO-PROO, project number: 411-10-908) and supported by Vereniging Trustfonds Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam (97010.11/14.0798). The authors would like to express their gratitude to Charly Eielts for programming the working memory task and Rolf Zwaan for his comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. We would also like to thank two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments on the original manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Wim T. J. L. Pouw.

Additional information

Handling editor: Katsumi Watanabe, Tokyo University

Reviewers: Mingyuan Chu, University of Aberdeen, Massimiliano Cappuccio, United Arab Emirates University

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Pouw, W.T.J.L., Mavilidi, MF., van Gog, T. et al. Gesturing during mental problem solving reduces eye movements, especially for individuals with lower visual working memory capacity. Cogn Process 17, 269–277 (2016).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: